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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Erie Railway Co., 106 U.S. 327 (1882)

United States v. Erie Railway Company

Decided November 27, 1882

106 U.S. 327




During the period when sec. 122 of the Act of June 30, 1864, c. 173, as amended by the Act of July 13, 1866, c. 184, was in force, a railway company paid to alien nonresident holders of its bonds the entire interest due from time to time thereon. Held that the company, no claim Laving been made here against it for any penalty, is liable to the United states for five percent on the amount so paid, with interest thereon at the rate of six percent per annum.

This was an action to recover taxes alleged to be due to the plaintiff on certain interest coupons paid by the defendant in the years 1866, 1867, 1868, and 1869, on bonds previously issued by it, and also certain penalties alleged to be due the plaintiff for failure of the defendant to make returns of the amount of the taxes. It was tried in the District Court for the Southern District of New York upon an agreed statement of facts, of which the following are all that are deemed material to explain the question raised and decided. Prior to September 1, 1866, the defendant had issued sterling coupon bonds to the amount of �800,000, dated September 1, 1865, the principal of which was payable two years after date, drawing interest at six percent per annum, payable semiannually on the first days of March and September of each year, and the principal and interest of which were payable in London, England, at the office of Junius S. Morgan & Co., bankers, of London; after March 1, 1868, and prior to September 1, 1868, the defendant had issued and sold bonds of the same class amounting to �200,000, the principal and interest of which were payable at the same place as the bonds previously issued; that all the bonds with coupons for interest attached were sold directly to J. S. Morgan & Co., J. T. Mackenzie, and Stern Brothers, all foreign bankers, having their places of business in London, and were by them sold to their customers in England and on the continent of Europe; that during the years 1866, 1867, 1868, 1869, the bonds and coupons were all held by nonresident aliens, and not by citizens of the United States, except bonds to the amount of �20,000, and the coupons attached, which were held

Page 106 U. S. 328

and owned by a citizen or citizens of the United States residing in Europe; that the amount of interest on all bonds was provided for, and sent forward by the defendant, in one sum or block, to J. S. Morgan & Co., before the dates at which it fell due, and as it fell due was paid by J. S. Morgan & Co. at their banking house in London, to the holders of the bonds and coupons; that the amount of interest paid in the years mentioned on the above-described bonds was �186,000, of which �4,200 were paid on the �20,000 held by a citizen or citizens of the United States; that the defendant made no returns to the assessor, or to any other officer of the internal revenue of the United States, of the payment of the interest, or any part thereof, nor did it ever pay to the United States, or to anyone on their behalf, five percent tax, or any tax on the interest, or any part thereof; nor did the defendant withhold the tax or any part thereof from the amount of the interest, but paid the full amount to the holders of the bonds, and that no assessment was ever made by the plaintiffs, or by any officer of the plaintiffs, on the defendant for any portion of the tax, nor was any demand ever made on the defendant for the payment of the same to the United States until December 31, 1872.

The court held that the defendant was not liable for a tax on the �181,800 sterling paid for interest upon coupons and bonds owned and held by nonresident aliens, but was liable for the tax on �4,200 sterling paid for interest on coupons and bonds owned and held by citizens of the United States, and also that it was liable for only one penalty for failure to make return to the revenue officer of the amount paid. Judgment was rendered accordingly, which, on error, was affirmed by the circuit court. This writ of error was then brought by the United States. No claim for any penalty was made in the United States. No claim for any penalty was made in the argument here on behalf of the United States, the only question presented for determination being whether the court below erred in holding that the company was not liable for the alleged tax of five percent on the �181,800 sterling interest which it had paid to nonresident owners and holders of its coupons and bonds.

The action was founded on sec. 122 of the Act of June 30, 1864, c. 173, as amended by the Act of July 13, 1866l mc. 184, which is as follows:

"That any railroad, canal, turnpike, canal

Page 106 U. S. 329

navigation, or slackwater company indebted for any money for which bonds or other evidence of indebtedness have been issued, payable in one or more years after date, upon which interest is stipulated to be paid, or coupons representing the interest, or any such company that may have declared any dividend in scrip or money due or payable to its stockholders, including nonresidents, whether citizens or aliens, as part of the earnings, profits, income, or gains of such company, and all profits of such company carried to the account of any fund, or used for construction, shall be subject to and pay a tax of five percent on the amount of all such interest or coupons, dividends or profits, whenever and wherever the same shall be payable and to whatsoever party or person the same may be payable, including nonresidents, whether citizens or aliens, and said companies are hereby authorized to deduct and withhold from all payments on account of any interest or coupons and dividends due and payable as aforesaid, the tax of five percent, and the payment of the amount of said tax, so deducted from the interest or coupons or dividends, and certified by the president or treasurer of said company, shall discharge said company from that amount of the dividend, or interest, or coupon on the bonds or other evidences of their indebtedness so held by any person or party whatever, except where said companies may have contracted otherwise. And a list or return shall be made and rendered to the assessor or assistant assessor on or before the tenth day of the month following that in which said interest, coupons, or dividends become due and payable, and as often as every six months, and said list or return shall contain a true and faithful account of the amount of tax, and there shall be annexed thereto a declaration of the president or treasurer of the company, under oath or affirmation, in form and manner as may be prescribed by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, that the same contains a true and faithful account of said tax. And for any default in making or rendering such list or return, with the declaration annexed, or of the payment of the tax as aforesaid, the company making such default shall forfeit as a penalty the sum of $1,000, and in case of any default in making or rendering said list or return, or of the payment of the tax, or any part thereof, as aforesaid,

Page 106 U. S. 330

the assessment and collection of the tax and penalty shall be made according to the provisions of law in other cases of neglect or refusal, provided that whenever any of the companies mentioned in this section shall be unable to pay the interest on their indebtedness, and shall in fact fail to pay such interest, that in such cases the tax levied by this section shall not be paid to the United States until said companies resume the payment of interest on their on their indebtedness."

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This judgment is reversed on the authority of Railroad Company v. Collector, 100 U. S. 595, and the cause is remanded with instructions to enter a judgment in favor of the United States for the equivalent in lawful money of the United States of the tax of nine thousand three hundred pounds sterling, with interest at the rate of six percent per annum from the several times when the same became due and payable, according to the agreed statement of facts on which the submission was made below. As no claim was made on the argument in this Court either for a penalty or for the currency value of the pounds sterling when the taxes fell due, we have not considered the questions which would have arisen if such a demand had been made. For these reasons, the judgment will be without penalties and for the present value of the pounds sterling in lawful money.


MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, with whom MR. JUSTICE HARLAN concurred, delivered the following opinion:

I concur in the judgment of the court in this case, but not for the reasons given in Railroad Company v. Collector, 100 U. S. 595. I concurred in the judgment in that case, as in this, on grounds essentially different from those given by the Court. I always regarded the tax which, by the one hundred and twenty-second section of the Internal Revenue Act of 1864, was laid upon the interest payable on the bonds and upon the dividends declared on the stock, of railroad and other corporations, as a tax on the incomes pro tanto of the holders of such bonds and stock. 87 U. S. 333; Railroad Company v. Rose, 95 U. S. 78. The interest payable on bonds was not a tax upon the companies in respect of a debt owed by them, nor upon the property represented thereby. The property obtained by the proceeds of the loans represented by the bonds was taxable (if not taxed) in another form, and consisted of the railroad tracks or canal, and other specific property of the companies respectively. If taxed directly, it was indirectly by means of the duty of two and a half percent which was laid on their gross earnings. The tax Laid upon their bonds was intended to affect the owners of them, and whilst the companies were directed to pay it, they were authorized to retain the amount from the installments due to the bondholders, whether citizens or aliens. The objection that Congress had no power to tax nonresident aliens is met by the fact that the tax was not assessed against them personally, but against the rem,@ the credit, the debt due to them. Congress has the right to tax all property within the jurisdiction of the United States, with certain

Page 106 U. S. 704

exceptions not necessary to be noted. In this case, the money due to nonresident bondholders was in the United States -- in the hands of the company -- before it could be transmitted to London or other place where the bondholders resided.

"While here, it was liable to taxation. Congress, by the internal revenue law, by way of tax, stopped a part of the money before its transmission -- namely five percent of it. Plausible grounds for levying such a tax might be assigned. It might be said that the creditor is protected by our laws in the enjoyment of the debt; that the whole machinery of our courts and the physical power of the government are placed at his disposal for its security and collection."

Whether taxation thus imposed would be respected by foreign governments if the creditor could bring before their courts the debtor company or its property, does not concern us in considering the question now presented. There is nothing in the Constitution which authorizes this Court or any other court to disaffirm the power of Congress to lay the tax. Congress is its own judge of the propriety or expediency of laying it.

Indeed, so far as the power of Congress is concerned regarded in reference to any power the courts have to limit or restrain it, I see no reason why Congress may not lay a tax upon any property on which the government can lay its hands, whether within or without the jurisdiction of the United States. If, in imitation of the dues levied by Denmark upon vessels passing through the Cattegat Sound, Congress should levy a duty upon all vessels passing through the Strait of Florida, I do not know of any power which the courts possess to prevent it. It might create complications with foreign governments, it is true, and involve the country in war, but Congress has the power, if it chooses to take the responsibility, of treating or giving occasion to such complications. The responsibility rests upon it alone.

So if, in taxing money due from citizens of the United States to foreign citizens, any complications arise with the governments to which the latter are subject, Congress alone has the responsibility, and is the only department of our government which has a right to take such a responsibility. In State Tax on Foreign-Held Bonds, 15 Wall. 300, the state legislature had laid a tax on the interest payable upon the bonds of all corporations doing business in the state and authorized the companies to retain the amount out of the interest payable to the bondholders without regard to their residence or nationality. I concurred in the judgment rendered in that case on the ground that the state, in passing such a law, applicable

Page 106 U. S. 705

to preexisting contracts, exceeded its just powers under our form of government, and that the law, in its effect upon nonresident bondholders, impaired the obligation of the contract.

Considering, therefore, that if Congress chooses to take the responsibility of levying such a tax as the one in question, the courts have no power to control its action or to give any relief to parties affected by it, I concur in the judgment of reversal.


As this work was ready for the press several months after the decision in The North Star, ante, p. 106 U. S. 17, was pronounced, 7 Appeal Cases was received in this country. It appears that in Soonavaart Mattschaphy Nederland v. Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, reported in that volume, p. 795, the House of Lords overruled Chapman v. Royal Netherlands Steam Navigation Company, taking the same view as that contained in the opinion in The North Star.

MR. JUSTICE FIELD, dissenting.

I am not able to agree with the majority of the Court in the decision of this case. The tax which is sustained is, in my judgment, a tax upon the income of nonresident aliens and nothing else. The 122d section of the Revenue Act of 1864, as amended by that of 1866, subjects the interest on the bonds of the company to a tax of five percent,

Page 106 U. S. 331

and authorizes the company to deduct it from the amount payable to the coupon-holder, whether he be a nonresident alien or a citizen of the United States. The company is thus made the agent of the government for the collection of the tax. It pays nothing itself; the tax is exacted from the creditor -- the party who holds the coupons for interest. No collocation of words can change this fact. And so it was expressly adjudged with reference to a similar tax in the case of United States v. Railroad Company, 17 Wall. 322. There a tax under the same statute was claimed upon the interest of bonds held by the City of Baltimore. And it was decided that the tax was upon the bondholder and not upon the corporation which had issued the bonds; that the corporation was only a convenient means of collecting it, and that no pecuniary burden was cast upon the corporation. This was the precise question upon which the decision of that case turned.

A paragraph from the opinion of the Court will show this beyond controversy.

"It is not taxation," said the Court,

"that government should take from one the profits and gains of another. That is taxation which compels one to pay for the support of the government from his own gains and of his own property. In the cases we are considering, the corporation parts not with a farthing of its own property. Whatever sum it pays to the government is the property of another. Whether the tax is five percent on the dividend or interest or whether it be fifty percent, the corporation is neither richer nor poorer. Whatever it thus pays to the government it by law withholds from the creditor. If no tax exists, it pays seven percent, or whatever be its rate of interest, to its creditor in one unbroken sum. If there be a tax, it pays exactly the same sum to its creditors, less five percent thereof, and this five percent it pays to the government. The receivers may be two or the receiver may be one, but the payer pays the same amount in either event. It is no pecuniary burden upon the corporation and no taxation of the corporation. The burden falls on the creditor. He is the party taxed. In the case before us, this question controls its decision. If the tax were upon the railroad, there is no defense; it must be paid. But we hold that the tax imposed by the 122d section is in substance and in law a tax upon the

Page 106 U. S. 332

income of the creditor or stockholder, and not a tax upon the corporation."

@See also 73 U. S. 269.

The bonds upon the interest of which the tax in this case was laid are held in Europe, principally in England; they were negotiated there; the principal and interest are payable there; they are held by aliens there, and the interest on them has always been paid there. The money which paid the interest was, until paid, the property of the company; when it became the property of the bondholders, it was outside of the jurisdiction of the United States.

Where is the authority for this tax? It was said by counsel on the argument of the case -- somewhat facetiously, I thought at the time -- that Congress might impose a tax upon property anywhere in the world, and this Court could not question the validity of the law, though the collection of the tax might be impossible, unless perchance the owner of the property should at some time visit this country or have means in it which could be reached. This Court will, of course, never in terms announce or accept any such doctrine as this. And yet it is not perceived wherein the substantial difference lies between that doctrine and the one which asserts a power to tax, in any case, aliens who are beyond the limits of the country. The debts of the company, owing for interest, are not property of the company, although counsel contended they were, and would thus make the wealth of the country increase by the augmentation of the debts of its corporations. Debts, being obligations of the debtors, are the property of the creditors so far as they have any commercial value, and it is a misuse of terms to call them anything else; they accompany the creditors wherever the latter go; their situs is with the latter. I have supposed heretofore that this was common learning, requiring no argument for its support, being in fact a self-evident truth, a recognition of which followed its statement. Nor is this the less so because the interest may be called in the statute a part of the gains and profits of the company. Words cannot change the fact, though they may mislead and bewilder. The thing remains through all disguises of terms. If the company makes no gains or profits on its business and borrows the money to

Page 106 U. S. 333

meet its interest, though it be in the markets abroad, it is still required under the statute to withhold from it the amount of the taxes. If it pays the interest, though it be with funds which were never in the United States, it must deduct the taxes. The government thus lays a tax through the instrumentality of the company upon the income of a nonresident alien over whom it cannot justly exercise any control, nor upon whom can it justly lay any burden.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, in his opinion in this case, when affirming the judgment of the district court, happily condensed the whole matter into a few words. "The tax," he says,

"for which the suit was brought was the tax upon the owner of the bond, and not upon the defendant. It was not a tax in the nature of a tax in rem upon the bond itself, but upon the income of the owner of the bond, derived from that particular piece of property. The foreign owner of these bonds was not in any respect subject to the jurisdiction of the United States; neither was this portion of his income. His debtor was, and so was the money of his debtor; but the money of his debtor did not become a part of his income until it was paid to him, and in this case the payment was outside of the United States, in accordance with the obligations of the contract which he held. The power of the United States to tax is limited to persons, property, and business within their jurisdiction, as much as that of a state is limited to the same subjects within its jurisdiction. State Tax on Foreign-Held Bonds, 15 Wall. 300."

"A personal tax," says the Supreme Court of New Jersey,

"is the burden imposed by government on its own citizens for the benefits which that government affords by its protection and its laws, and any government which would attempt to impose such a tax on citizens of other states would justly incur the rebuke of the intelligent sentiment of the civilized world."

State v. Ross, 23 N.J. 517, 521.

In imposing a tax, says Chief Justice Marshall, the legislature acts upon its constituents. "All subjects," he adds,

"over which the power of a state extends are objects of taxation, but those over which it does not extend are, upon the soundest principles, exempt from taxation. This proposition

Page 106 U. S. 334

may almost be pronounced self-evident."

@ 17 U. S. 428.

There are limitations upon the powers of all governments without any express designation of them in their organic law -- limitations which inhere in their very nature and structure -- and this is one of them: that no rightful authority can be exercised by them over alien subjects, or citizens resident abroad, or over their property there situated. This doctrine may be said to be axiomatic, and courts in England have felt it so obligatory upon them that where general terms, used in acts of Parliament, seem to contravene it, they have narrowed the construction to avoid that conclusion. In a memorable case decided by Lord Stowell which involved the legality of the seizure and condemnation of a French vessel engaged in the slave trade, which was in terms within an act of Parliament, that distinguished judge said:

"That neither this British act of Parliament nor any commission founded on it can affect any right or interest of foreigners unless they are founded upon principles and impose regulations that are consistent with the law of nations. That is the only law which Great Britain can apply to them, and the generality of any terms employed in an act of Parliament must be narrowed in construction by a religious adherence thereto."

The Le Louis, 2 Dod. 210, 239.

Similar language was used by Mr. Justice Bailey of the King's Bench where the question was whether the act of Parliament which declared the slave trade and all dealings therewith unlawful justified the seizure of a Spanish vessel, with a cargo of slaves on board, by the captain of an English naval vessel, and it was held that it did not. The odiousness of the trade would have carried the justice to another conclusion if the public law would have permitted it, but he said,

"That although the language used by the legislature in the statute referred to is undoubtedly very strong, yet it can only apply to British subjects, and can only render the slave trade unlawful if carried on by them; it cannot apply in any way to a foreigner. It is true that if this were a trade contrary to the law of nations, a foreigner could not maintain this action. But it is not, and as a Spaniard could not be considered as bound by the acts of the British legislature prohibiting this trade, it would be unjust to deprive

Page 106 U. S. 335

him of a remedy for the heavy damage he has sustained."

Madrazo v. Willes, 3 Barn. & Ald. 353.

In the case of The Appollon, a libel was filed against the collector of the District of St. Mary's for damages occasioned by the seizure of the ship and cargo while lying in a river within the territory of the King of Spain, and Mr. Justice Story said, speaking for the Court, that

"The laws of no nation can justly extend beyond its own jurisdiction except so far as regards its own citizens. They can have no force to control the sovereignty or rights of any other nation within its own jurisdiction. And however general and comprehensive the phraseology used in our municipal laws may be, they must always be restricted in construction to places and persons upon whom the legislatures have authority and jurisdiction."

9 Wheat. 22 U. S. 362.

When the United States became a separate and independent nation, they became, as said by Chancellor Kent, "subject to that system of rules which reason, morality, and custom had established among the enlightened nations of Europe as their public law," and by the light of that law must their dealings with persons of a foreign jurisdiction be considered, and according to that law there could be no debatable question that the jurisdiction of the United States over persons and property ends where the foreign jurisdiction begins.

What urgent reasons press upon us to hold that this doctrine of public law may be set aside, and that the United States, in disregard of it, may lawfully treat as subject to their taxing power the income of nonresident aliens, derived from the interest received abroad on bonds of corporations of this country negotiable and payable there? If, in the form of taxes, the United States may authorize the withholding of a portion of such interest, the amount will be a matter in their discretion; they may authorize the whole to be withheld. And if they can do this, why may not the states do the same thing with reference to the bonds issued by corporations created under their laws. They will not be slow to act upon the example set. If such a tax may be levied by the United States in the rightful exercise of their taxing power, why may not a similar tax be levied upon the interest on bonds of the same corporations by the states within their respective jurisdictions in the rightful

Page 106 U. S. 336

exercise of their taxing power? What is sound law for one sovereignty ought to be sound law for another.

It is said in answer to these views that the governments of Europe -- or at least some of them where a tax is laid on incomes -- deduct from the interest on their public debts the tax due on the amount as income, whether payable to a nonresident alien or a subject of the country. This is true in some instances, and it has been suggested in justification of it that the interest, being payable at their treasuries, is under their control, the money designated for it being within their jurisdiction when set apart for the debtor, who must in person or by agent enter the country to receive it. That presents a case different from the one before us in this, that here the interest is payable abroad, and the money never becomes the property of the debtor until actually paid to him there. So whether we speak of the obligation of the company to the holder of the coupons or the money paid in its fulfillment, it is held abroad, not being in either case within the jurisdiction of the United States. And with reference to the taxation of the interest on public debts, Mr. Phillimore, in his Treatise on International Laws, says:

"It may be quite right that a person having an income accruing from money lent to a foreign state should be taxed by his own country on his income derived from this source, and if his own country impose an income tax, it is, of course, a convenience to all parties that the government which is to receive the tax should deduct it from the debt which, in this instance, that government owes to the payer of the tax, and thus avoid a double process; but a foreigner, not resident in the state, is not liable to be taxed by the state, and it seems unjust to a foreign creditor to make use of the machinery which, on the ground of convenience, is applied in the cases of domestic creditors in order to subject him to a tax to which he is not on principle liable."

Vol. ii, pp. 14-15.

Here also is a further difference: the tax here is laid upon the interest due on private contracts. As observed by counsel, no other government has ever undertaken to tax the income of subjects of another nation accruing to them at their own domicile upon property held there and arising out of ordinary business or contracts between individuals.

Page 106 U. S. 337

This case is decided upon the authority of Railroad Co. v. Collector, 100 U. S. 595, and the doctrines from which I dissent necessarily flow from that decision. When that decision was announced, I was apprehensive that the conclusions would follow which I now see to be inevitable. It matters not what the interest may be called -- whether classed among gains and profits or covered up by other forms of expression -- the fact remains, the tax is laid upon it, and that is a tax which comes from the party entitled to the interest -- here, a nonresident alien in England who is not and never has been subject to the jurisdiction of this country.

In that case, the tax is called an excise on the business of the class of corporations mentioned, and is held to be laid not on the bondholder who receives the interest, but upon the earnings of the corporations which pay it. How can a tax on the interest to be paid be called a tax on the earnings of the corporation if it earns nothing -- if it borrows the money to pay the interest? How can it be said not to be a tax upon the income of the bondholder when out of his interest the tax is deducted? That case was not treated as one the disposition of which was considered important as settling a rule of action. The opening language of the opinion is:

"As the sum in this suit is small and the law under which the tax in question has long since been repealed, the case is of little consequence as regards any principle involved in it as a future rule of action."

But now it is invoked in a case of great magnitude, and many other similar cases, as we are informed, are likely soon to be before us, and though it overrules repeated and solemn adjudications rendered after full argument and mature deliberation, though it is opposed to one of the most important and salutary principles of public law, it is to be received as conclusive, and no further word from the Court, either in explanation or justification of it, is to be heard. I cannot believe that a principle so important as the one announced here and so injurious in its tendencies, so well calculated to elicit unfavorable comment from the enlightened sentiment of the civilized world, will be allowed to pass unchallenged, though the Court is silent upon it.

I think the judgment should be affirmed.

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