Rankin v. Hoyt/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

45 U.S. 327

Rankin  v.  Hoyt

The right of the plaintiffs to recover in this case, and consequently to have a reversal of the judgment rendered in the Circuit Court, must depend on the legality of the course pursued by the defendant.

No question has been made by counsel, that an action in this particular form cannot be maintained against a collector of the customs, if the course pursued by him was illegal, or that the protest against paying the duties should have been in writing; points which have arisen in similar controversies and led to special legislation by Congress, but not being made here, it is not necessary now to consider them. See on them Elliott v. Swartwout, 10 Peters, 138, 158; Bond v. Hoyt, 13 Peters, 267; Carey v. Curtis, 3 Howard, 236; Swartwout v. Gihon, 3 Howard, 110; Act of February 26th, 1845.

The illegality imputed to the proceedings of the collector is supposed to have consisted in this; that he possessed no power, in cases of this kind, to call on the appraisers to estimate the value of the wool; and if he did possess it, that they do not appear to have acted here by his request. These objections, if well sustained, are material, because, by the appraisal, the true value of the wool was reported to be nine cents per pound, and then, by the act of July 14th, 1832, a duty on it was 'levied of four cents per pound, and forty per centum ad valorem.' (4 Lit. & Brown's ed. 583.) Whereas if the appraisal was unauthorized, and the invoice should have been the only guide, the value of the wool was but seven and a half cents per pound, and by the same act it ought then to have been allowed to 'be imported free.'

The legal power of the collector to call on the appraisers to estimate the value of this wool rests on the construction which ought to be given to the second and seventh sections of the act aforesaid, both of which are extracted at length in the statement of this case. The plaintiffs contend, that the seventh section, authorizing an appraisal where the duty may be regulated by the value, or imposed at a rate ad valorem, is not applicable to any importations which, like these, if looking to the invoice alone, are not dutiable; and that the second section, regulating the appraisement of wool 'mixed with dirt or other material,' is the only one applicable to wool which, like this, was valued so low in the invoice as to be free; but did not in this case authorize the action of the appraisers in respect to these particular importations, as these; by the verdict of the jury, afterwards, were found not to have been so mixed.

In the first place, we so far coincide with the views of the plaintiffs, as to be satisfied that the second section does not justify the course pursued by the defendant in the present case. But we dissent from the argument, that it is the only section applicable to importations like these, and hold that the seventh section, though open to different constructions on this subject, is plainly susceptible of one which embraces it; and that the spirit of the section, as well as of the whole system of appraisement under the revenue laws, seems not only to justify, but require, the application of its provisions to importations like those now under consideration. It ought, then, to be so construed; since this court has recently decided, that acts imposing duties are not, as has often been done, to be construed strictly against the government, like penal laws, but so as 'most effectually to accomplish the intention of the legislature in passing them.' Taylor et al. v. United States, 3 Howard, 210.

By the words of this last section, so far as material to the present inquiry, it is provided, that if the duty 'imposed on any goods, wares, or merchandise' 'shall by law be regulated by, or be directed to be estimated or levied upon, the value of the square yard, or of any other quantity or parcel thereof, and in all cases where there is or shall be imposed any ad valorem rate of duty,' &c., 'it shall be the duty of the collector' 'to cause the actual value thereof, at the time purchased,' &c., 'to be appraised, estimated, and ascertained,' &c., by appraisers.

Under the act of May 19th, 1828, a duty partly specific and partly ad valorem had been imposed on all wool imported from abroad. No doubt can exist, that the power to have appraised the value of any wool, imported under that act, had it remained unaltered in 1838, would have existed in the collector, because a duty in all cases was imposed and was in some degree regulated by the value, though it was not wholly an ad valorem rate of duty. But by the act of July 14th, 1832, an amendment was made in the rate on one description of wool, so as to admit it free, if its value did not exceed eight cents per pound, and the argument for the plaintiff is, that as such wool no longer paid an ad valorem duty, the collector would no longer call on the appraisers to estimate its value. It is to be noticed, however, that this exemption did not make wool, as an article, cease to be dutiable. Nor did it become, after this change, any less important, in regulating the duty which was proper to be imposed on any wool, to ascertain the true value of it in all cases, so as to levy thereon four cents per pound and forty per cent. ad valorem, if the value turn out to be above eight cents per pound; and nothing if at or below eight cents. (See the first section, 4 Lit. & Brown's ed. 583.)

This act may then be considered to authorize the use of appraisers not merely when an article imported pays an ad valorem rate of duty, but whenever the duty is regulated by the value; or in other words, as we construe the provision, whenever a duty may exist or cease according to the value, as well as whenever it may increase or diminish, according to it. The language of the seventh section is broad enough, under this view, to justify the course that was adopted by the collector in the present case. But, if we look to the spirit of that section, and of the whole act of which it forms a part, in respect to the policy both of employing appraisers and discriminating in the duties imposed on wool, any remaining doubt as to the propriety of considering this case as coming within the seventh section must be removed. If the appraisers could not be called on to estimate the true value of the wool, when imported at low prices, but the value in the invoice was alone to guide, the revenue on all wool was manifestly liable to be lost, or the treasury greatly defrauded, by the article being put in the invoice at a price below the actual value, in order to introduce it free. Any incidental protection, contemplated from the duty, to the growth of finer and more valuable wools in this country, would also be thus exposed to total defeat by the importation of this last kind at a valuation so low as to escape any duty whatever.

The utility of appraisers in such a case is even more apparent and important than in most others, because the value of wool is uncertain, fluctuating, and liable to be concealed by many ingenious devices,-lowering the prices in the invoice, and others putting different qualities of wool in the same bale, or bringing it in mixed with dirt and burrs. It is on this last account, and not, as argued for the plaintiffs, because it is the only case in which the appraisers were authorized to act in respect to wool, that the second section requires them, in estimating its value, if mixed, to appraise it as high as if not mixed. In like manner, the act of 1832, as well as 1828, requires wool imported on the skin to be taxed according to its 'weight and value,' as in other cases. And, instead of either of these provisions appearing to exclude the use of appraisers generally for ascertaining the true value of lowpriced wool, they both seem to contemplate or imply their employment in such imports, knowing that the duty was to be affected or regulated by the value, and proceeding therefore merely to lay down specific rules for ascertaining it in cases where the wool is found to be mixed or on the skin.

It is not a little confirmatory of this view, that the act of August 30th, 1842, which imposes some duty on all kinds of wool, and thus confessedly authorizes an appraisement in every importation, repeats substantially the provisions in former acts for guiding the appraisers in estimating the value of mixed wool; thus showing with absolute certainty that such provisions do not in other acts exclude-or can probably in the present case be meant to exclude-the employment of appraisers in ascertaining the true value of wool, however low it is put in the invoice, and however unmixed it may be with other materials.

The only adjudged case which has been alluded to by the plaintiffs as supporting their views is that of Curtis v. Martin et al., 3 Howard, 106.

There the article in question, being gunny-bags, had not, at the time the duty was levied, been specified in the tariff laws, as subject to any duty whatever, in any form or value. The effort by the collector was to impose a duty on it under another name, such as cotton bagging. But in the present case, the article in dispute had been made by Congress dutiable in express terms, and no kinds of it were exempt unless of a particular value; and the object and the effect of the appraisement were not, as has been contended, to make the article of wool dutiable, when it was not before dutiable by law, but to see whether a particular import of the article was actually of so small value per pound as by law to be entitled to exemption from duty.

The other leading objection urged in this case is more easily disposed of. In saying that the appraisers had no right to act without the previous request of the collector, and that no such request appears in the evidence, nothing is stated beyond the truth. But, in the absence of testimony to the contrary, the legal presumption is, that the appraisers and collector both did their duty, he requesting their action, as by law he might, and they complying.

Beside this, it is conceded that he adopted their doings, and such a subsequent ratification of them is undoubtedly tantamount to having requested them. An incidental exception taken in the argument is, that as the jury have found the value in the invoice to be correct, the collector could not be justified in following the higher valuation of the appraisers. But an appraisal, made in a proper case, must be followed, or the action of the appraisers would be nugatory, and their appointment and expenses become unnecessary. Tappan v. The United States, 2 Mason's R. 404. The propriety of following it cannot in such case be impaired by the subsequent verdict of the jury differing from it in amount, as the verdict did not exist to guide the collector when the duty was levied, but the appraisal did, and must justify him, or not only the whole system of appraisement would become worthless, but a door be opened to a new and numerous class of actions against collectors, entirely destitute of equity. We say destitute of it, because, in case the importer is dissatisfied with the valuation made by the appraisers, he is allowed, by the act of Congress of May 28th, 1830, before paying the duty, an appeal and further hearing before another tribunal, constituted in part by persons of his own selection. (See second section, 4 Lit. & Brown's ed. 409.)

These persons have been aptly denominated a species of 'legislative referees' (2 Mason, 406); and if the importer does not choose to resort to them, he cannot with much grace complain afterwards that any over-estimate existed.

The judgment below is 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).