Board or Directors of the Chicago Theological Seminary v. Illinois Samuel B Raymond/Dissent White

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion
Douglass White

United States Supreme Court

188 U.S. 662

Board or Directors of the Chicago Theological Seminary  v.  Illinois Samuel B Raymond

 Argued: and Submitted January 20, 21, 1903. --- Decided: February 23, 1903

Mr. Justice White, with whom concur Mr. Justice Brown and Mr. Justice Holmes, dissenting:

The court, in stating the facts, refers to a previous opinion of the supreme court of the state of Illinois, announced in a case between the same parties, involving a question of law like unto that which arises on this record. In that case, however, the supreme court of Illinois but reversed and remanded for a new trial, and hence the judgment was not final and not susceptible of being brought to this court to test the issues involving the constitutional right under the contract. After the record in the previous case reached the trial court the case was not further pressed by the plaintiff for such length of time as to cause it, under the Illinois statute, to be in effect abandoned. The question here now for review is not, therefore, controlled by the thing adjudged arising from the previous judgment. The court does not now decide to the contrary, but the matter is referred to by me lest a misconception be caused by the mention made of the subject in the opinion of the court.

I do not dispute the elementary proposition that exemptions from taxation are stricti juris, that is, not to be extended by implication. This, however, does not imply that a contract exemption is to be disregarded, simply because it may be possible for a subtle mind to suggest a possible doubt as to the exemption, however conjectural may be the assumption on which the doubt is rested. Nor does the rule mean that, because it is deemed that a particular contract exemption was an unwise one for the public interest, therefore the meaning of the contract is to be disregarded by a court in order to relieve the public from the burdens arising from the obligations of the contract. The rule, as understood by me, is this only, that the language from which an exemption is claimed to arise is to receive a literal construction, and is not to be extended so as to embrace a right not within the clear meaning of the contract. I do not, moreover, dispute the principle that where the contract which is asserted to have been impaired arises from a state law, it is the duty of the court, in case of doubt as to the meaning of the contract, to adopt the construction given to it by the state court. This rule does not imply that because the state court has decided against the contract right, therefore there is doubt and, hence, the resulting duty to affirm the action of the state court. If such were the case, the power of this court to review the action of state courts concerning the alleged impairing of the obligations of a contract would be at an end wherever the contract took its origin in state law. The significance of the rule is this, that if, fairly considering the issue of contract arising from the state law and its alleged impairment, this court, in the exercise of its independent judgment, remains in doubt, the decision below construing the state law will be allowed to solve the doubt, and thus secure the affirmance of the judgment. The obligation on me as a member of the court is identical with that which rests on the court.

Coming to apply these rules to the case in hand, my mind has no doubt whatever as to the true meaning of the contract. Let me state what the contract is, in order to show why I do not doubt on the subject.

The 1st section of the act from which the contract arises creates a corporation for a religious and benevolent purpose, under the name of 'The Board of Directors of the Chicago Theological Seminary.' The 2d section provides as follows:

'That the seminary shall be located at or near the city of Chicago. The object shall be to furnish instruction and the means of education to young men preparing for the gospel ministry, and the institution shall be equally open to all denominations of Christians for this purpose.'

The 3d section provides for the board of directors; the 4th relates to the powers of the board; and the 5th is as follows:

'That the property, of whatever kind or description, belonging or appertaining to said seminary, shall be forever free and exempt from all taxation for all purposes whatsoever.'

The 6th section provides when the act shall take effect, and declares that it 'shall be construed liberally in all courts for the purposes therein expressed.' Does the exemption covered by the 5th section relate to the theological seminary, the corporation created by the act, or does it apply only to a building to be erected by the corporation? is the question at issue.

It is admitted that if the exemption applies to the theological seminary, the contract has been impaired and the judgment should be reversed. It is now decided that the exemption relates only to the seminary, that is, to the buildings, and, therefore, the judgment is affirmed. Now, giving to the words of exemption their natural meaning, and construing them strictly, there does not seem to me to be a doubt that they relate to the theological seminary incorporated by the act, and referred to as such in its 1st section. My mind does not enable me to see what else the words can mean. If it was intended merely to exempt a building or buildings, language could have been employed which would have aptly conveyed such meaning. Instead of doing this, the language used in the act-as I understand it-excludes such construction, since it declares that the exemption shall relate to the property 'belonging or appertaining to said seminary;' the word 'belonging' clearly referring to the corporation created by the act and on whom was conferred the power to own and possess property. Emphasis is added to this view when the scope of the exemption is borne in mind; since it embraces, not a mere building or its accessories, but the property of whatever kind or description, thus describing and referring to the power to own and acquire property of every kind and description, real or personal, conferred on the theological seminary by the act. It is further to be observed, as throwing light upon the subject, that in the 4th section, immediately preceding the grant of the exemption, the particular building, or place of learning, to be constructed by the theological seminary is twice referred to as the institution, thus showing that the legislative mind had immediately before it when the exemption was granted the distinction between the theological seminary as a corporate entity to which the exemption was granted, and the institution to be constructed and supported by the theological seminary. I cannot, moreover, conceive that the words of the statute, immediately following the section granting the exemption, commanding that the provisions of the contract 'shall be liberally construed in all courts for the purposes therein expressed,' should have what seems to me their plain meaning disregarded, by causing them to refer, not to the act as a whole, but to some particular provision in it. I find nothing in the language which lends itself to such a view.

I therefore dissent.

I am authorized to say that Mr. Justice Brown and Mr. Justice Holmes concur in this dissent.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).