STUTSMAN COUNTY V. WALLACE, 142 U. S. 293 (1892)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stutsman County v. Wallace, 142 U.S. 293 (1892)

Stutsman County v. Wallace

No. 89

Argued November 13, 1891

Decided January 4, 1892

142 U.S. 293


Upon the construction of the constitution and laws of a state, this Court, as a general rule, follows the decisions of its highest court unless they conflict with or impair the efficacy of some provision of the Constitution or of a law of the United States, or a rule of general commercial law.

In the case of an appeal from a judgment of the supreme court of a territory which was admitted as a state after the appeal was taken, a subsequent judgment of the highest court of the state upon the construction of a territorial law involved in the appeal is entitled to be followed by this Court in preference to its construction by the supreme court of the territory.

Following the decision of the Supreme Court of North Dakota as to the tax laws of Dakota Territory, held:

(1) That an erroneous decision of an assessor of taxes under those laws in the matter of exemptions does not deprive the tax proceedings of jurisdiction, and that, until such erroneous decision is modified or set aside by the proper tribunal, all officers with subsequent functions may safely act thereon, and that the rule of caveat emptor applies to a purchaser at a tax sale thereunder.

(2) That under those laws a county treasurer, in making a sale for nonpayment of taxes, acts ministerially, the law furnishing the authority for selling the property and the warrant indicating the subjects upon which it is to be exercised, and he is protected so long as he acts within the statute.

(3) That in the case of lands granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company on which the costs of survey had not been paid and for which no patents had been issued, it was his duty to proceed to sell, notwithstanding those facts, and that when the title of the purchaser at the tax sale failed by reason of the lands' not being subject to taxation, the county was not liable for the purchase money under c. 28, § 78 of the Political Code of 1877.

The rule that the known and settled construction of a statute of one state will be regarded as accompanying its adoption by another is not applicable where that construction had not been announced when the statute was adopted, nor when the statute is changed in the adoption.

The Court stated the case as follows:

Appellees brought an action in the District Court for the Sixth Judicial District of the Territory of Dakota, September

Page 142 U. S. 294

28, 1886, to recover from Stutsman County certain moneys which they had paid that county for lands which the treasurer of the county had assumed to sell to them in satisfaction of taxes wrongfully assessed thereon, and which sale was therefore invalid. They also sought to recover the amount of taxes paid by them on the land after the sale, and prayed judgment for the amounts paid, and interest at thirty percent per annum thereon from the dates of the payments, respectively.

The allegations of the complaint were denied by the defendant, and the action was tried upon a statement of facts agreed to by the parties, which statement was adopted by the district court as its findings of fact. These findings were, in substance, that the lands in question were part of the original grant by the United States to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company; that no patents had been issued for them; that the company earned the lands after the passage of the Act of Congress of date July 15, 1870, in regard to the payment of the costs of surveying; that they were surveyed at the expense of the United States government, and no part of the cost and expenses of the survey had at the time of the tax sale been repaid by the railroad company to the United States; that in the year 1880, the proper officers of the county assessed all the parcels of land mentioned in a schedule attached to the complaint, marked "A," and levied certain taxes thereon, to-wit, the territorial, county, general school, and district school taxes, amounting in the aggregate to $5,500, all of which remained unpaid October 1, 1882; that prior to that date the then county treasurer of that county offered the lands for sale for the nonpayment of said taxes, and for the collection of the same, and sold them to Charles S. Wallace for sums amounting in the aggregate to $5,221.75, and the treasurer then and there executed and delivered to Wallace the certificate of sale of the lands in the form provided by law to be issued upon the sale of land for nonpayment of taxes, and Wallace paid the treasurer said amount; that in 1881, the officers of the county, duly authorized to assess property therein, assessed and levied taxes upon said parcels of land for the territorial, county, and school taxes, and that Wallace,

"in order to protect his tax lien thereon

Page 142 U. S. 295

and equitable title thereto, paid to the defendant's treasurer, as subsequent taxes upon said land, being the taxes so levied for the year 1881,"

the amount of $4,699.25, none of which taxes so levied for the year 1881 had theretofore been paid; that in 1882, the officers of the county assessed and levied territorial, county, general school, and district school taxes upon the parcels of land described in the schedule attached to the complaint and marked "B," all of which remained unpaid October 1, 1883, and the then treasurer of the county offered the lands for sale for the nonpayment of the taxes, and for the collection of the same, and sold them to Wallace for the sum in the aggregate of $6,033, and the treasurer delivered certificates of sale to Wallace, and he paid the said amount.

That in October, 1884, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company brought an action against the treasurer and Wallace, wherein a decree was entered adjudging the tax proceedings in question to be null and void, and enjoining the treasurer from making, and Wallace from receiving, any tax deed to the property named in Schedule A, and in September, 1885, a like action was brought, which resulted in a similar decree as to the property named in Schedule B.

It was also found that James M. Martin had an interest in the tax receipts under an assignment from Wallace, and that prior to the commencement of this action, plaintiffs tendered to the Board of County Commissioners of Stutsman County the tax certificates in question,

"and offered to surrender said certificates to said county upon the payment of the amount so paid by said plaintiff, Charles S. Wallace, for the purchase of said lands at said sales, and for the payment of the subsequent taxes thereon as aforesaid, together with the interest thereon at the rate of thirty percent per annum from the dates of such payment,"

but defendant refused to pay that sum or any part thereof, and the whole is still unpaid, and that no part of the land has ever been redeemed from the sales, nor from either of them, nor from the subsequent taxes paid as aforesaid.

The court found as conclusions of law that no taxes were due upon the lands at the time of their sale, and that they were sold

"by the mistake and wrongful act of the defendant's

Page 142 U. S. 296

treasurer, the then County Treasurer of Stutsman County, and that the plaintiffs are entitled to recover from the defendant the amount paid for said lands at said sales, and the amount paid as subsequent taxes thereon, as hereinafter stated, together with thirty percent interest thereon, and on the whole amount so paid, from and after the date of such payments, as hereinafter specified, to this date,"

and thereupon directed judgment in favor of plaintiffs, and against Stutsman County, for $9,921, with interest from and after October 1, 1882 at the rate of thirty percent per annum, and for the amount of $6,033, with interest thereon from and after October 1, 1883 at the rate of thirty percent per annum, amounting in the aggregate, both principal and interest, to the sum of $35,800, together with costs and disbursements, and judgment was entered accordingly.

Exceptions were duly taken, and motion for new trial made and overruled. The county thereupon carried the case on appeal to the supreme court of the territory, by which the judgment was affirmed, whereupon an appeal was prayed and allowed to this Court.

The parts of the revenue laws of the Territory of Dakota referred to be counsel are given in the margin. *

Page 142 U. S. 305

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