Morgan v. Parham

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

83 U.S. 471

Morgan  v.  Parham

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Alabama; the case being thus:

The Constitution ordains that

'Congress shall have power to regulate commerce between the States.'

An act of Congress passed December 31st, 1792, [1] enacts that

'Every ship or vessel shall be registered by the collector of the district in which such ship or vessel shall belong at the time of her registry, and her port shall be that nearest to which her owner, husband, or acting and managing owner usually resides, and the name of the vessel and the port to which she shall so belong shall be painted on her stern, on a black ground in white letters, not less than three inches in length.'

The omission to designate the name 'and port to which she belongs' is made penal.

An act of February 18th, 1793, [2] for enrolling and licensing vessels employed in the coasting trade, enacts thus:

'SECTION 3. That it shall and may be lawful for the collectors of the several districts to enrol and license any ship or vessel that may be registered, upon such registry being given up; or to register any ship or vessel that may be enrolled upon such enrolment and license being given up. And when any ship shall be in any other district than the one to which she belongs the collector of such district, on the application of the master or commander thereof, and upon his taking an oath or affirmation that according to his best knowledge and belief the property remains as expressed in the register or enrolment proposed to be given up, &c., shall make the exchanges aforesaid; but in every such case the collector, to whom the register or enrolment and license may be given up, shall transmit the same to the Register of the Treasury; and the register, or enrolment and license granted in lieu thereof, shall within ten days after the arrival of such ship or vessel within the district to which she belongs, be delivered to the collector of the said district, and be by him cancelled.'

This provision of the Constitution, and these acts being in force, the steamer 'Frances' was assessed in the years 1866 and 1867 as personal property in the city of Mobile, belonging to one Morgan. A tax was laid upon the vessel, and remaining unpaid, the same was seized by the collector of the city of Mobile. The owner, Morgan, brought an action of trespass in the court below against the collector for such seizure, and the collector justified by virtue of his tax warrant.

The facts upon which the question of the liability to taxation of the vessel depended, were these:

The Frances was brought to Mobile in 1865, and from that time until the trial in 1870, had been employed as a coasting steamer between Mobile and New Orleans. Before being brought to Mobile, the vessel was duly registered at the port of New York, under the ownership of the plaintiff, and the name of the vessel and her port of New York were then painted on her stern, according to the acts of Congress, and the same had ever since so remained. The plaintiff then was and since had remained a citizen of New York. The vessel then was the property of the plaintiff, and had continued to be his property from that time to the day of the trial.

In January, 1867, the vessel was regularly enrolled at the custom-house in Mobile by her master, as a coaster, and her license as a coasting vessel was renewed in the several years 1868 and 1869, and with other similar vessels constituted one of a daily line of steamers plying between Mobile and New Orleans. During this term the captain of the vessel had been a resident of Mobile, and the agent conducting the business of the vessels at Mobile was resident there, occupied an office there for such business, and employed and paid the persons who assisted him therein, but such agent was under the control of a superior agent residing in New Orleans, who employed and paid the captain and other officers of the vessel. A wharf and office in Mobile were occupied for the use of these vessels. The vessels were built at Wilmington for the domestic trade. They transported the mails, freight, and passengers between Mobile and New Orleans, and this business was extensive and profitable. Upon these facts the question arose, was this vessel subject to taxation as personal property under the laws of the State of Alabama?

The court held that the vessel was taxable under those laws, and gave judgment for the defendant. To review that judgment the present suit was brought.

Mr. P. Phillips, for the plaintiff in error, contended that the vessel was owned in New York, had not been blended with the commerce and business of Alabama, was engaged in the interstate coasting trade, and that her taxation by the authority of Alabama would be in violation of that provision of the Constitution of the United States which gives to Congress the regulation of commerce between the States.

Mr. C. W. Rapier (with whom was Mr. C. F. Moulton), contra, insisted that the vessel was personal property within the State of Alabama, and subject to the general rule of taxability.

Mr. Justice HUNT delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Section 3d; 1 Stat. at Large, 56, 288.

^2  Ib. 306.

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).