United States v. County of Macon/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

99 U.S. 582

United States  v.  County of Macon

In United States v. County of Clark (96 U.S. 211), we decided that bonds issued by counties under sect. 13 of the act to incorporate the Missouri and Mississippi Railroad Company were debts of the county, and that for any balance remaining due on account of principal or interest after the application of the proceeds of the special tax authorized by that section the holders were entitled to payment out of the general funds of the county. In Loan Company v. Topeka (20 Wall. 660), we also decided that 'it is to be inferred, when the legislature of a State authorizes a county or city to contract a debt by bond, it intends to authorize it to levy such taxes as are necessary to pay the debt, unless there is in the act itself, or in some general statute, a limitation upon the power of taxation which repels such an inference.'

When the act to incorporate the Missouri and Mississippi Railroad Company was passed, the power of counties in the State of Missouri to tax for general purposes was limited by law to one-half of one per cent on the taxable value of the property in the county. Rev. Stat. Mo., 1865, p. 96, sect. 7, p. 121, sect. 76. This limit has never since been increased, and the Constitution of 1875, which is now in force, provides that this tax shall never exceed that rate in counties of the class of Macon. Art. 10, sect. 11. If there had been nothing in the act to the contrary, it might, perhaps, have been fairly inferred that it was the intention of the legislature to grant full power to tax for the payment of the extraordinary debt authorized to an amount sufficient to meet both principal and interest at maturity. This implication is, however, repelled by the special provision for the tax of one-twentieth of one per cent. and the case is thus brought directly within the maxim, expressio unius est exclusio alterius.

Thus, while the debt was authorized, the power of taxation for its payment was limited, by the act itself and the general statutes in force at the time, to the special tax designated in the act, and such other taxes applicable to the subject as then were or might thereafter by general or special acts be permitted. No contract has been impaired by taking away a power which was in force when the bonds were issued. The general power of taxation to pay county debts is as ample now as it was when the railroad company was incorporated and the debt incurred. The difficulty lies in the want of original power. While there has undoubtedly been great recklessness on the part of the municipal authorities in the creation of bonded indebtedness, there has not unfrequently been gross carelessness on the part of purchasers when investing in such securities. Every purchaser of a municipal bond is chargeable with notice of the statute under which the bond was issued. If the statute gives no power to make the bond, the municipality is not bound. So, too, if the municipality has no power, either by express grant or by implication, to raise money by taxation to pay the bond, the holder cannot require the municipal authorities to levy a tax for that purpose. If the purchaser in this case had examined the statutes under which the county was acting, he would have seen what might prove to be difficulties in the way of payment. As it is, he holds the obligation of a debtor who is unable to provide the means of payment. We have no power by mandamus to compel a municipal corporation to levy a tax which the law does not authorize. We cannot create new rights or confer new powers. All we can do is to bring existing powers into operation. In this case it appears that the special tax of one-twentieth of one per cent has been regularly levied, collected, and applied, and no complaint is made as to the levy of the one-half of one per cent for general purposes. What is wanted is the levy beyond these amounts, and that, we think, under existing laws, we have no power to order.

Our attention has been directed to the general railroad law in force when the Missouri and Mississippi Railroad Company was incorporated and when the bonds in question were issued, and it is insisted that ample power is to be found there for the levy of the required tax. The power of taxation there granted is, as we think, clearly confined to subscriptions authorized by that act, which require the assent of two-thirds of the qualified voters of the county. Under such circumstances, it seems to have been considered proper to allow substantially unlimited power of taxation to pay a debt which the voters had directly authorized. In this case no such assent was required, and the tax-payers were protected against the improvident action of the official authorities by a limit upon the amount they should be required to pay in any one year. The general railroad act was in force when this company was incorporated, but its provisions seem not to have been satisfactory to the corporators. They wanted authority for counties to subscribe without an election, and on that account accepted the terms which were offered. As the bondholders claim under the corporation, they must submit to the conditions as to taxation which were substituted for those that would otherwise have existed.

We have not been referred to any statute which gives a judgment creditor any right to a levy of taxes which he did not have before the judgment. The judgment has the effect of a judicial determination of the validity of his demand and of the amount that is due, but it gives him no new rights in respect to the means of payment.

This disposes of the case, and without answering specifically the questions that have been certified, we affirm the judgment.

Judgment affirmed.

NOTE.-In County of Macon v. Huidekoper, error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Missouri, which was argued at the same time and by the same counsel as was the preceding case, MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE announced the judgment of the court, as follows: A majority of the court adheres to the decision in United States v. County of Clark (96 U.S. 211), and I am directed to announce the affirmance of this judgment upon the authority of that case.


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).