Piqua Branch of the State Bank of Ohio v. Knoop/Dissent Catron

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United States Supreme Court

57 U.S. 369

Piqua Branch of the State Bank of Ohio  v.  Knoop

Mr. Justice CATRON.

This is a contest between the State of Ohio and a portion of her banking institutions, organized under a general banking law, passed in 1845. She was then a wealthy and prosperous community, and had numerous banks which employed a large capital, and were taxed by the general laws five per cent. on their dividends, being equal to thirty cents on each hundred dollars' worth of stock, supposing it to be at par value. But this was merely a State tax, payable into the State treasury. The old banks were liable to taxes for county purposes, besides; and when located in cities or towns, for corporation taxes also. These two items usually amounted to much more than the State tax.

Such was the condition of Ohio when the general banking law was passed in 1845. By this act, any number of persons not less than five might associate together, by articles, to carry on banking.

The State was laid off into districts, and the law prescribes the amount of stock that may be employed in each. Every county was entitled to one bank, and some to more. Commissioners were appointed to carry the law into effect. It was the duty of this Board of Control to judge of the articles of association, and other matters necessary to put the banks into operation. Any company might elect to become a branch of the State Bank, or to be a separate bank, disconnected with any other. Fifty thousand dollars was the minimum, and five hundred thousand the maximum, that could be employed in any one proposed institution.

By the fifty-first section, each of the banking companies authorized to carry on business was declared to be a body corporate with succession to the first day of May, 1866, with general banking powers; with the privilege to issue notes of one dollar and upwards, to one hundred dollars; and each bank was required to have 'on hand in gold and silver coin, or their equivalent, one half at least of which shall be in gold and silver coin in its vault, an amount equal to thirty per cent. of its outstanding notes of circulation;' and whenever the specie on hand, or its equivalent, shall fall below twenty per cent. of the outstanding notes, then no more notes shall be circulated.' The equivalent to specie, meant deposites that might be drawn against in the hands of eastern banks, or bankers of good credit. In this provision constituted the great value of the franchise.

The 59th section declares that semiannual dividends shall be made by each bank of its profits, after deducting expenses; and the 60th section provides, that six per cent. per annum of these profits shall be set off to the State, 'which sum or amount so set off shall be in lieu of all taxes to which such company, or the stockholders thereof on account of stock owned therein, would otherwise be subject.' This was equal to thirty-six cents per annum on each hundred dollars of stock subscribed, supposing it to yield six per cent. interest.

By an act of 1851, it was declared that bank stock should be assessed at its true value, and that it should be taxed for State, county, and city purposes, to the same extent that personal property was required to be taxed at the place where the bank was located. As this rate was much more than that prescribed by the 60th section of the act of 1845, the bank before us refused to pay the excess, and suffered herself to be sued by the tax collector, relying on the 60th section, above recited, as an irrepealable contract, which stood protected by the Constitution of the United States.

It is proper to say that the trifling sum in dispute in this cause is the mere ground of raising the question between the State of Ohio and some fifty of her banks, claiming exemption under the act of 1845.

The taxable property of these banks is about eighteen millions of dollars, according to the auditor's report of last year, and which was used on the argument of this cause, by both sides. Of course, the State officers, and other tax payers, assailed the corporations claiming the exemption, and various cases were brought before the Supreme Court of Ohio, drawing in question the validity of the act of 1851 in so far as it increased the taxes of the banks beyond the amount imposed by the 60th section of the act of 1845. The State court sustained the act of 1851, from which decision a writ of error was prosecuted, and the cause brought to this court.

The opinions of the State court have been laid before us, for our consideration; and on our assent or dissent to them, the case depends.

The first question made and decided in the Supreme Court of Ohio was, whether the 60th section of the act of 1845, purported to be in its terms, a contract not further to tax the banks organized under it during the entire term of their existence? The court held that it imported no such contract; and with this opinion I concur.

The question was examined by the judge who delivered the unanimous opinion of the court, in the case of Debolt v. The Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, 1 Ohio State Reports, 564, with a fairness, ability, and learning, calculated to command the respect of all those who have his opinion to review; and which opinion has, as I think, construed the 60th section truly. But, as my brother Campbell has rested his opinion on this section without going beyond it, and as I concur in his views, I will not further examine that question, but adopt his opinion in regard to it.

The next question, decided by the State court is of most grave importance; I give it in the language of the State court: 'Had the general assembly power, under the constitution then in force, permanently to surrender, by contract, within the meaning and under the protection of the Constitution of the United States, the right of taxation over any portion of the property of individuals, otherwise subject to it?' On which proposition the court proceeds to remark:

'Our observations and conclusions upon this question, must be taken with reference to the unquestionable facts, that the act of 1851 was a bon a fide attempt to raise revenue by an equal and uniform tax upon property, and contained no covert attack upon the franchises of these institutions. That the surrender did not relate to property granted by the State, so as to make it a part of the grant for which a consideration was paid; the State having granted nothing but the franchise, and the tax being upon nothing but the money of individuals invested in the stock; and that no bonus or gross sum was paid in hand for the surrender, so as to leave it open to controversy, that reasonable taxes, to accrue in future, were paid in advance of their becoming due. What effect a different state of facts might have, we do not stop to inquire. Indeed, if the attempt has here been made, it is a naked release of sovereign power without any consideration or attendant circumstance to give it strength or color; and, so far as we are advised, is the first instance where the rights and interests of the public have been entirely overlooked.'

'Under these circumstances, we feel no hesitation in saying the general assembly was incompetent to such a task. This conclusion is drawn from a consideration of the limited authority of that body, and the nature of the power claimed to be abridged.

'That political sovereignty, in its true sense, exists only with the people, and that government is 'founded on their sole authority,' and subject to be altered, reformed, or abolished only by them, is a political axiom upon which all the American governments have been based, and is expressly asserted in the bill of rights. Such of the sovereign powers with which they were invested, as they deem necessary for protecting their rights and liberties, and securing their independence, they have delegated to governments created by themselves, to be exercised in such manner and for such purposes as were contemplated in the delegation. That these powers can neither be enlarged or diminished by these repositories of delegated authority, would seem to result, inevitably, from the fundamental maxim referred to, and to be too plain to need argument or illustration.

'If they could be enlarged, government might become absolute; if they could be diminished or abridged, it might be stripped of the attributes indispensable to enable it to accomplish the great purposes for which it was instituted. And, in either event, the constitution would be made, either more or less, than it was when it came from the hands of its authors; being changed and subverted without their action or consent. In the one event its power for evil might be indefinitely enlarged; while in the other its capacity for good might be entirely destroyed; and thus become either an engine of oppression, or an instrument of weakness and pusillanimity.

'The government created by the constitution of this State, (Ohio,) although not of enumerated, is yet one of limited powers. It is true, the grant to the general assembly of 'legislative authority' is general; but its exercise within that limit is necessarily restrained by the previous grant of certain powers to the federal government, and by the express limitations to be found in other parts of the instrument. Outside of that boundary, it needed no express limitations, for nothing was granted. Hence this court held, in Cincinnati, Wilmington, &c. R. R. v. Clinton Co., 1 Ohio State Rep. 77, that any act passed by the general assembly not falling fairly within the scope of 'legislative authority,' was as clearly void as though expressly prohibited. So careful was the convention to enforce this principle, and to prevent the enlargement of the granted powers by construction or otherwise, that they expressly declared in art. 8, § 28-'To guard against the transgression of the high powers we have delegated, we declare that all powers, not hereby delegated, remain with the people.' When, therefore, the exercise of any power by that body is questioned, its validity must be determined from the nature of the power, connected with the manner and purpose of its exercise. What, then, is the taxing power? And to what extent, and for what purposes has it been conferred upon the legislature? That it is a power incident to sovereignty-'a power of vital importance to the very existence of every government'-has been as often declared as it has been spoken of. Its importance is not too strongly represented by Alexander Hamilton, in the 30th number of the Federalist, when he says: 'Money is with propriety considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most important functions. A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of revenue, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution. From a deficiency in this particular, one of two evils must ensue; either the people must be subjected to continual plunder, as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy, and in a short course of time perish.'

'This power is not to be distinguished, in any paticular material to the present inquiry, from the power of eminent domain. Both rest upon the same foundation-both involve the taking of private property-and both, to a limited extent, interfere with the natural right guaranteed by the constitution, of acquiring and enjoying it. But, as this court has already said, in the case referred to, 'neither can be classed amongst the independent powers of government, or included in its objects and ends.' No government was ever created for the purpose of taking, taxing, or otherwise interfering with the private property of its citizens. 'But charged with the accomplishment of great objects necessary to the safety and prosperity of the people, these rights attach as incidents to those objects, and become indispensable means to the attainment of those ends.' They can only be called into being to attend the independent powers, and can never be exercised without an existing necessity.

'To sustain this power in the general assembly, would be to violate all the great principles to which I have alluded. It would affirm its right to deal in, and barter away the sovereign right of the State, and thereby, in effect, to change the constitution. When the general assembly of 1845 convened, it found the State in the unquestionable possession of the sovereign right of taxation, for the accomplishment of its lawful objects, extending to 'all the persons and property belonging to the body politic."

When its successor convened, in 1846, under the same constitution, and to legislate for the same people, if this defence is available, it found the State shorn of this power over fifteen or twenty millions of property, still within its jurisdiction and protected by its laws. This and each succeeding legislature had the same power to surrender the right, as to any and all other property; until at length the government, deprived of every thing upon which it could operate, to raise the means to attain its necessary ends, by the exercise of its granted powers, would have worked its own inevitable distruction, beyond all power of remedy, either by the legislature or the people. It is no answer to this to say that confidence must be reposed in the legislative body, that it will not thus abuse the power.

'But, in the language of the court, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 'is this a case of confidence?"

'For every surrender of the right to tax particular property not only tends to paralyze the government, but involves a direct invasion of the rights of property, of the balance of the community; since the deficiency thus created must be made up by larger contributions from them, to meet the public demand.'

The foregoing are some of the reasonings of the State court on the consideration here involved. With these views I concur, and will add some of my own. The first is, 'That acts of parliament derogatory from the power of subsequent legislatures, are not binding. Because, (as Blackstone says,) the legislature being in truth the sovereign power, is always equal, always absolute; and it acknowledges no superior on earth, which the prior legislature must have been if its ordinances could bind a subsequent parliament. And upon the same principle Cicero, in his letters to Atticus, treats with proper contempt these restraining clauses which endeavor to tie up the hands of succeeding legislatures. When you repeal the law itself, says he, you at the same time repeal the prohibitory clause which guards against repeal.'

If this is so under the British government, how is it in Ohio? Her Supreme Court holds that the State constitution of 1802 expressly prohibited one legislature from restraining its successors by the indirect means of contracts exempting certain property, from taxation. The court says,-Power to exempt property, was reserved to the people; they alone could exempt, by an organic law. That is to say, by an amended constitution. The clause mainly relied on declares, 'that all powers not delegated, remain with the people.' Now it must be admitted that this clause has a meaning; and it must also be conceded (as I think,) that the Supreme Court of Ohio, has the uncontrollable right to declare what that meaning is; and that this court has just as little right to question that construction as the Supreme Court of Ohio has to question our construction of the Constitution of United States.

In my judgment the construction of the court of Ohio is proper; but if I believed otherwise I should at once acquiesce. Let us look at the matter fairly and truly as it is, and see what a different course on part of this court would lead to; nay, what Ohio is bound to do in self-defence and for self-preservation, under the circumstances.

In 1845 a general banking law is sought at the hands of the legislature, where five dollars in paper can be circulated for every dollar in specie in the bank, or on deposit, in eastern banks or with brokers. One dollar notes are authorized; every county in the State is entitled to a bank, and the large ones to several; the tempting lure is held out of six per cent. interest on five hundred dollars for every hundred dollars paid in as stock: thus obtaining a profit of twenty-four dollars on each hundred dollars actually paid in. That such a bill would have advocates enough to pass it through the legislature, all experience attests; and that the slight tax of thirty-six cents on each hundred dollars' worth of stock, subscribed and paid, was deemed a privilege, when the existing banks and other property were taxed much higher, is plainly manifest. As was obvious, when the law passed, banks sprang up at once-some fifty in number having a taxable basis last year of about eighteen millions. The elder and safer banks were, of course, driven out, and new organizations sought under the general law, by the stockholders. From having constructed large public works, and made great expenditures, Ohio has become indebted so as to require a very burdensome tax on every species of property; this was imposed by the act of 1851, and on demanding from these institutions their equal share, the State is told that they were protected by a contract made with the legislature of 1845, to be exempt from further taxation, and were not bound by the late law, and, of course, they were sued in their own courts. The Supreme Court holds that by the express terms of the State constitution no such contract could be made by the legislature of 1845, to tie up the hands of the legislature of 1851. And then the banks come here and ask our protection against this decision, which declares the true meaning of the State constitution. It expressly guarantees to the people of Ohio the right to assemble, consult, 'and instruct their representatives for their common good;' and then 'to apply to the legislature for a redress of grievances.' It further declares, that all powers not conferred by that constitution on the legislature are reserved to the people. Now, of what consequence or practical value will these attempted securities be if one legislature can restrain all subsequent ones by contracting away the sovereign power to which instructions could apply?

The question, whether the people have reserved this right so as to hold it in their own hands, and thereby be enabled to regulate it by instructions to a subsequent legislature, (or by a new constitution,) is a question that has been directly raised only once, in any State of the Union, so far as I know. In the case of Brewster v. Hough, 10 New Hampshire Reports, 139, it was raised, and Chief Justice Parker, in delivering the opinion of the court in a case in all respects like the one before us, says, 'That it is as essential that the public faith should be preserved inviolate as it is that individual grants and contracts should be maintained and enforced. But there is a material difference between the right of a legislature to grant lands, or corporate powers, or money, and a right to grant away the essential attributes of sovereignty or rights of eminent domain. These do not seem to furnish the subject-matter of a contract.'

This court sustained the principle announced by the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, in the West River Bridge case. A charter for one hundred years, incorporating a bridge company, had been granted; the bridge was built and enjoyed by the company. Then another-law was passed authorizing public roads to be laid out, and free bridges to be erected; the commissioners appropriated the West River Bridge and made it free; the Supreme Court of Vermont sustained the proceeding on a review of that decision. And this court held that the first charter was a contract securing the franchises and property in the bridge to the company; but that the first legislature could not cede away the sovereign right of eminent domain, and that the franchises and property could be taken for the uses of free roads and bridges, on compensation being made.

Where the distinction lies, involving a principle, between that case and this, I cannot perceive, as every tax-payer is compensated by the security and comfort government affords. The political necessities for money are constant and more stringent in favor of the right of taxation; its exercise is required daily to sustain the government. But in the essential attributes of sovereignty the right of eminent domain and the right of taxation are not distinguishable.

If the West River Bridge case be sound constitutional law (as I think it is) then it must be true that the Supreme Court of Ohio is right in holding that the legislature of 1845 could not deprive the legislature of 1851 of its sovereign powers or of any part of them.

It is insisted, that the case of the State of Ohio v. The Commercial Bank of Cincinnati, 7 Ohio Rep. 125, has held otherwise. This is clearly a mistake. The State in that case raised no question as to the right of one legislature to cede the sovereign power to a corporation, and tie up the hands of all subsequent legislatures: no such constitutional question entered into the decision; nor is any allusion made to it in the opinion of the court. It merely construed the acts of assembly, and held that a contract did exist on the ground that by the charter the bank was taxed four per cent.; and therefore the charter must be enforced, as this rate of taxation adhered to the charter, and excluded a higher imposition.

It would be most unfortunate for any court, and especially for this one, to hold that a decision affecting a great constitutional consideration, involving the harmony of the Union, (as this case obviously does,) should be concluded by a decision in a case where the constitutional question was not raised by counsel; and so far from being considered by the court, was never thought of: such a doctrine is altogether inadmissible. And in this connection I will say, that there are two cases decided by this court, (and relied on by the plaintiff in error,) in regard to which similar remarks apply. The first one is that of New Jersey v. Wilson, 7 Cranch, 164. An exchange of lands took place in 1758 between the British colony of New Jersey and a small tribe of Indians residing there. The Indians had the land granted to them by an act of the colonial legislature, which exempted it from taxes. They afterwards sold it, and removed. In 1804, the State legislature taxed these lands in the hands of the purchasers; they were proceeded against for the taxes, and a judgment rendered, declaring the act of 1804 valid. In 1812, the judgment was brought before this court, and the case submitted on the part of the plaintiff in error without argument; no one appearing for New Jersey. This court held the British contract with the Indians binding; and, secondly, that it run with the land which was exempt from taxation in the hands of the purchasers.

No question was raised in the Supreme Court of New Jersey, nor decided there, or in this court, as to the constitutional question of one legislature having authority to deprive a succeeding one of sovereign power. The question was not considered, nor does it seem to have been thought of in the State court or here.

The next case is Gordon's case, 3 Howard, 144. What questions were there presented on the part of the State of Maryland, does not appear in the report of the case, but I have turned to them in the record, to see how they were made in the State courts. They are as follows:

'1st. That at the time of passing the general assessment law of 1841, there was no contract existing between the State and the banks, or any of them, or the stockholders therein or any of them, by which any of the banks or stockholders can claim an exemption from the taxation imposed upon them by the said act of 1841.'

'2d. That the contract between the State and the old banks, if there be any contract, extends only to an exemption from further 'taxes or burdens,' of the corporate privileges of banking; and does not exempt the property, either real or personal, of said banks, or the individual stockholders therein.'

'3d. That even if the contract should be construed to exempt the real and personal property of the old banks, and the property of the stockholders therein, yet such exemption does not extend to the new banks, or those chartered since 1830, and, moreover that the power of revocation, in certain cases in these charters, reserves to the State the power of passing the general assessment law.'

'4th. That the imposition of a tax of 20 cents upon every one hundred dollars' worth of property; upon both the old and new banks, under the said assessment law, is neither unequal nor oppressive, nor in violation of the bill of rights.'

'5th. That taxation upon property within the State, wherever the owners may reside, is not against the bill of rights.'

On these legal propositions the opinion here given sets out by declaring that, 'The question, however, which this court is called on the decide, and to which our decision will be confined, is-Are the shareholders in the old and new banks, liable to be taxed under the act of 1841, on account of the stock which they own in the banks.'

The following paragraph is the one relied on as adjudging the question, that the taxing power may be embodied in a charter and contracted away as private property, to wit: 'Such a contract is a limitation on the taxing power of the legislature making it, and upon succeeding legislatures, to impose any further tax on the franchise.'

'But why, when bought, as it becomes property, may it not be taxed as land is taxed which has been bought from the State, was repeatedly asked in the course of the argument. The reason is, that every one buys land, subject in his own apprehension to the great law of necessity, that we must contribute from it and all of our property something to maintain the State. But a franchise for banking, when bought, the price is paid for the use of the privilege whilst it lasts, and any tax upon it would substantially be an addition to the price.'

As the case came up from the Supreme Court of Maryland, this court had power merely to re examine the questions raised in the court below, and decided there. All that is asserted in the opinion beyond this is outside of the case of which this court had jurisdiction, and is only so far to be respected as it is sustained by sound reasoning; but its dicta are not binding as authority; and so the Supreme Court of Maryland held in the case of the Mayor, &c. of Baltimore v. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, 6 Gill, 288.

The State of Maryland merely asked to have her statutes construed, and if, by their true terms, she had promised to exempt the stockholders of her banks from taxation, then she claimed no tax of them. She took no shelter under constitutional objections, but guardedly avoided doing so.

If an expression of opinion is authority that binds, regardless of the case presented, then we are as well bound the other way, by another quite equal authority. In the case of East Hartford v. Hartford Bridge Co. 10 Howard, 535, Mr. Justice Woodbury, delivering the opinion of the court, says: The case of Goszler v. The Corporation of Georgetown, 6 Wheat. 596, 598, 'appears to settle the principle that a legislative body cannot part with its powers by any proceeding so as not to be able to continue the exercise of them. It can, and should, exercise them again and again, as often as the public interests require.' . . ..

'Its members are made, by the people, agents or trustees for them, on this subject, and can possess no authority to sell or grant their power over the trust to others.'

The Hartford case was brought here from the Supreme Court of Connecticut, by writ of error, on the ground that East Hartford held a ferry right secured by a legislative act that was a private contract. But this court held, among other things that, by a true construction of the State laws, no such contract existed; so that this case cannot be relied on as binding authority more than Gordon's case. If fair reasoning and clearness of statement are to give any advantage, then the Hartford case has that advantage over Gordon's case.

It is next insisted that the State legislatures have in many instances, and constantly, discriminated among the objects of taxation; and have taxed and exempted according to their discretion. This is most true. But the matter under discussion is aside from the exercise of this undeniable power in the legislature. The question is whether one legislature can, by contract, vest the sovereign power of a right to tax, in a corporation as a franchise, and withhold the same power that legislature had to tax, from all future ones? Can it pass an irrepealable law of exemption?

General principles, however, have little application to the real question before us, which is this: Has the constitution of Ohio withheld from the legislature the authority to grant, by contract with individuals, the sovereign power; and are we bound to hold her constitution to mean as her Supreme Court has construed it to mean? If the decisions in Ohio have settled the question in the affirmative that the sovereign political power is not the subject of an irrepealable contract, then few will be so bold as to deny that it is our duty to conform to the construction they have settled; and the only objection to conformity that I suppose could exist with any one is, that the construction is not settled. How is the fact?

The refusal of some fifty banks to pay their assessed portion of the revenue for the year 1851, raised the question for the first time in the State of Ohio; since then the doctrine has been maintained in various cases, supported unanimously by all the judges of the Supreme Court of that State, in opinions deeply considered, and manifesting a high degree of ability in the judges, as the extract from one of them, above set forth, abundantly shows. If the construction of the State constitution is not settled, it must be owing to the recent date of the decisions. An opinion proceeding on this hypothesis will, as I think, involve our judgment now given in great peril hereafter; for if the courts of Ohio do not recede, but firmly adhere to their construction until the decisions, now existing, gain maturity and strength by time, and the support of other adjudications conforming to them, then it must of necessity occur that this court will be eventually compelled to hold that the construction is settled in Ohio; when it must be followed to avoid conflict between the judicial powers of that State and the Union, an evil that prudence forbids.

1. The result of the foregoing opinion is, that the sixtieth section of the general banking law of 1845 is, in its terms, no contract professing to bind the Legislature of Ohio not to change the mode and amount of taxation on the banks organized under this law; and for this conclusion I rely on the reasons stated by my brother Campbell, in his opinion, with which I concur.

2. That, according to the constitutions of all the States of this Union, and even of the British Parliament, the sovereign political power is not the subject of contract so as to be vested in an irrepealable charter of incorporation, and taken away from, and placed beyond the reach of, future legislatures; that the taxing power is a political power of the highest class, and each successive legislature having vested in it, unimpaired, all the political powers previous legislatures had, is authorized to impose taxes on all property in the State that its constitution does not exempt.

It is undeniably true that one legislature may by a charter of incorporation exempt from taxation the property of the corporation in part, or in whole, and with or without consideration; but this exemption will only last until the necessities of the State require its modification or repeal.

3. But if I am mistaken in both these conclusions, then, I am of opinion that, by the express provisions of the constitution of Ohio, of 1802, the legislature of that State had withheld from its powers the authority to tie up the hands of subsequent legislatures in the exercise of the powers of taxation, and this opinion rests on judicial authority that this court is bound to follow; the Supreme Court of Ohio having held by various solemn and unanimous decisions, that the political power of taxation was one of those reserved rights intended to be delegated by the people to each successive legislature, and to be exercised alike by every legislature according to the instructions of the people. This being the true meaning of the nineteenth and twenty-eighth sections of the bill of rights, forming part of the constitution of 1802; one section securing the right of instructing representatives, and the other protecting reserved rights held by the people.

Whether this construction given to the State constitution is the proper one, is not a subject of inquiry in this court; it belongs exclusively to the State courts, and can no more be questioned by us than State courts and judges can question our construction of the Constitution of the United States. For these reasons I am of opinion that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio should be affirmed.

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).