Tomlinson v. Jessup/Opinion of the Court

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

United States Supreme Court

82 U.S. 454

Tomlinson  v.  Jessup

The constitution of South Carolina, adopted in 1868, declares that the property of corporations then existing or thereafter created, shall be subject to taxation, except in certain cases, not material to the present inquiry. The subsequent legislation of the State carried out this requirement and provided for the taxation of the property of railroad companies; and the question presented is, whether the act of December, 1855, to amend the charter of the Northeastern Railroad Company, exempted the property of that company from such taxation. The company was incorporated in 1851, and at that time a general law of the State was in existence, passed in 1841, which enacted that the charter of every corporation subsequently granted, and any renewal, amendment, or modification thereof, should be subject to amendment, alteration, or repeal by legislative authority, unless the act granting the charter or the renewal, amendment, or modification, in express terms excepted it from the operation of that law. The provisions of that law, therefore, constituted the condition upon which every charter of a corporation subsequently granted was held, and upon which every amendment or modification was made. They were as operative and as much a part of the charter and amendment, as if incorporated into them.

The act amending the charter of the Northeastern Railroad Company, passed in December, 1855, provided that the stock of the company, and the real estate it then owned, or might thereafter acquire, connected with or subservient to the works authorized by its charter, should be exempted from taxation during the continuance of the charter. This act contained no clause excepting the amendment from the provisions of the general law of 1841. It was, therefore, itself subject to repeal by force of that law.

It is true that the charter of the company when accepted by the corporators constituted a contract between them and the State, and that the amendment, when accepted, formed a part of the contract from that date and was of the same obligatory character. And it may be equally true, as stated by counsel, that the exemption from taxation added greatly to the value of the stock of the company, and induced the plaintiff to purchase the shares held by him. But these considerations cannot be allowed any weight in determining the validity of the subsequent taxation. The power reserved to the State by the law of 1841 authorized any change in the contract as it originally existed, or as subsequently modified, or its entire revocation. The original corporators, or subsequent stockholders, took their interests with knowledge of the existence of this power, and of the possibility of its exercise at any time in the discretion of the legislature. The object of the reservation, and of similar reservations in other charters, is to prevent a grant of corporate rights and privileges in a form which will preclude legislative interference with their exercise if the public interest should at any time require such interference. It is a provision intended to preserve to the State control over its contract with the corporators, which without that provision would be irrepealable and protected from any measures affecting its obligation.

There is no subject over which it is of greater moment for the State to preserve its power than that of taxation. It has nevertheless been held by this court, not, however, without occasional earnest dissent from a minority, that the power of taxation over particular parcels of property, or over property of particular persons or corporations, may be surrendered by one legislative body, so as to bind its successors and the State. It was so adjudged at an early day in New Jersey v. Wilson; [1] the adjudication was affirmed in Jefferson Bank v. Skelly, [2] and has been repeated in several cases within the past few years, and notably so in the cases of The Home of the Friendless v. Rouse [3] and Wilmington Railroad v. Reed. [4] In these cases, and in others of a similar character, the exemption is upheld as being made upon considerations moving to the State which give to the transaction the character of a contract. It is thus that it is brought within the protection of the Federal Constitution. In the case of a corporation the exemption, if originally made in the act of incorporation, is supported upon the consideration of the duties and liabilities which the corporators assume by accepting the charter. When made, as in the present case, by an amendment of the charter, it is supported upon the consideration of the greater efficiency with which the corporation will thus be enabled to discharge the duties originally assumed by the corporators to the public, or of the greater facility with which it will support its liabilities and carry out the purposes of its creation. Immunity from taxation, constituting in these cases a part of the contract with the government, is, by the reservation of power such as is contained in the law of 1841, subject to be revoked equally with any other provision of the charter whenever the legislature may deem it expedient for the public interests that the revocation shall be made. The reservation affects the entire relation between the State and the corporation, and places under legislative control all rights, privileges, and immunities derived by its charter directly from the State. Rights acquired by third parties, and which have become vested under the charter, in the legitimate exercise of its powers, stand upon a different footing; but of such rights it is unnecessary to speak here. The State only asserts in the present case the power under the reservation to modify its own contract with the corporators; it does not contend for a power to revoke the contracts of the corporation with other parties, or to impair any vested rights thereby acquired.

DECREE REVERSED, and the cause remanded with directions to



  1. 7 Cranch, 164
  2. 1 Black, 436.
  3. 8 Wallace, 430.
  4. 13 Id. 264.

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).

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse