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U.S. Supreme Court

Fallbrook Irrigation Dist. v. Bradley, 164 U.S. 112 (1896)

Fallbrook Irrigation District v. Bradley

No. 355

Argued January 23, 24, 27, 1896

Decided November 16, 1896

164 U.S. 112


In a suit brought in a circuit court of the United States by an alien against a citizen of the state in which the court sits, claiming that an act about to be done therein by the defendant to the injury of the plaintiff, under authority of a statute of the state, will be in violation of the Constitution of the United States and also in violation of the constitution of the state, the federal courts have jurisdiction of both classes of questions; but, in exercising that jurisdiction as to questions arising

Page 164 U. S. 113

under the state constitution, it is their duty to be guided by and follow the decisions of the highest court of the state (1) as to the construction of the statute and (2) as to whether, if so construed, it violates any provision of that constitution. Loan Association v. Topeka, 20 Wall. 655, shown to be in harmony with this decision.

The statute of California of March 7, 1887, to provide for the organization and government of irrigation districts and to provide for the acquisition of water and other property, and for the distribution of water thereby for irrigation purposes, and the several acts amendatory thereof having been clearly and repeatedly decided by the highest court of that state not to be in violation of its Constitution, this Court will not hold to the contrary.

Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U. S. 97, 96 U. S. 104, cited and armed to the point that

"whenever, by the laws of a state or by state authority, a tax, assessment, servitude or other burden is imposed upon property for the public use, whether it be for the whole state or of some more limited portion of the community, and those laws provide for a mode of confirming or contesting the charge thus imposed in the ordinary courts of justice, with such notice to the person, or such proceeding in regard to the property as is appropriate to the nature of the case, the judgment in such proceedings cannot be said to deprive the owner of his property without due process of law, however obnoxious it may be to other objections."

There is no specific prohibition in the federal Constitution which acts upon the states in regard to their taking private property for any but a public use.

What is a public use for which private property may be taken by due process of law depends upon the particular facts and circumstances connected with the particular subject matter.

The irrigation of really arid lands is a public purpose, and the water thus used is put to a public use, and the statutes providing for such irrigation are valid exercises of legislative power.

The land which can be properly included in any irrigation district under the statutes of California is sufficiently limited to arid, unproductive land by the provisions of the acts.

Due process of law is furnished and equal protection of the law given in such proceedings when the course pursued for the assessment and collection of taxes is that customarily followed in the state and when the party who may be charged in his property has an opportunity to be heard.

The irrigation acts make proper provisions for a hearing as to whether the petitioners are of the class mentioned or described in them, whether they have complied with the statutory provisions, and whether their lands will be benefited by the proposed improvement. They make it the duty of the board of supervisors, when landowners deny that the signers of a petition have fulfilled the requirements of law, to give a hearing or hearings on that point. They provide for due notice of the proposed

Page 164 U. S. 114

presentation of a petition, and that the irrigation districts when created

in the manner provided are to be public corporations with fixed boundaries. They provide for a general scheme of assessment upon the property included within each district, and they give an opportunity to the taxpayer to be heard upon the questions of benefit, valuation, and assessment, and the question as to the mode of reaching the results, even if in some cases the results are inequitable, does not reach to the level of a federal constitutional problem. In all these respects, the statutes furnish due process of law within the meaning of that term as used in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

This is an appeal from the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of California. The case is reported in 68 F.9d 8. The action was commenced in that court by defendants in error (the plaintiffs below) for the purpose of procuring an injunction restraining defendant Tomlins, the collector of the irrigation district, from giving a deed to it of the premises belonging to plaintiff Mrs. Bradley based on a sale of her land made by the collector for the nonpayment of a certain assessment upon such lands under the act incorporating the irrigation district, and to set aside such assessment, and for other relief.

The following, among other facts, were set up in the plaintiffs' second amended bill in equity: the plaintiffs are aliens and subjects of Great Britain, residing in San Diego County, California. The irrigation district is a corporation organized pursuant to the laws of California, and doing business at Fallbrook, San Diego County. Matthew Tomlins was the collector of the corporation at the time of the commencement of the suit, and it has been doing business as, and claims to be, a corporation, under

"An act providing for the organization and government of irrigation districts, and to provide for the acquisition of water and other property, and for the distribution of water thereby for irrigation purposes,"

approved March 7, 1887, as such acts have been amended.

The original act, which is commonly known as the Wright Act and was so cited by counsel in their arguments, was enacted on the 7th of March, 1887, and will be found in the laws of California at page 29. It contained 47 sections.

Sections, 1, 2, 3, and 4 were amended by an Act of March 20,

Page 164 U. S. 115

1891, Laws of 1891, page 142, so as to read as in that act set forth.

Sections 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 stand as originally enacted.

Section 10 was amended by the Act of February 16, 1889, Laws of 1889, page 15, so as to read as in that act set forth.

Sections 11 and 12 were amended by said Act of March 20, 1891, so as to read as in that act set forth.

Sections 13 and 14 stand as originally enacted.

Section 15 was amended by another Act of March 20, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 147, so as to read as in that act set forth.

Section 16 remains as originally enacted.

Section 17 was amended by the Act of March 11, 1893, Laws of 1893, page 175, so as to read as in that act set forth.

Section 18 was amended by the Act of March 21, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 244, so as to read as in that act set forth.

Sections 19, 20, and 21 remain as originally enacted.

Section 22 has been twice amended: (1) by the said act of February 16, 1889, page 15: (2) by the said Act of March 20, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 147. It now stands as so amended in 1891.

Section 23 was amended by said Act of March 20, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 147. It now reads as in that act set forth.

Sections 24, 25, and 26 were amended by the Act of March 21, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 244. They now read as in that act set forth.

Section 27 of said act was amended by the Act of February 16, 1889, Laws of 1889, page 15. It now reads as so amended.

Sections 28, 29, 40, 31, 32, 33, and 34 stand as originally enacted.

Section 35 was amended by said Act of March 20, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 142. It now reads as so amended.

Sections 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, and 41 stand as originally enacted.

Section 42 was amended by the Act of March 20, 1891, Laws of 1891, page 142. It now reads as so amended.

Sections 43, 44, 45, 46, and 47 have not been changed.

Page 164 U. S. 116

The material sections of the act, as amended by the other acts just stated, are set forth in the margin herein. *

The legislature also passed two acts, approved February 16, 1889, called, respectively, the "Inclusion" and the "Exclusion" Act, by which means were provided, in the first-named

Page 164 U. S. 117

act, for including lands within an irrigation district which had not been included in the petition when first presented to the board of supervisors; and, in the second-named act, for excluding from a district already formed some portion of the land which then formed part of such district. An

Page 164 U. S. 118

examination of those acts does not become material in this case.

The plaintiff, Mrs. Bradley, is the owner of certain real estate described in complainants' bill, which is included within

Page 164 U. S. 119

the lines of the irrigation district. The bill sets forth the various steps taken under the irrigation act for the purpose of forming the irrigation district, and it alleges the taking of

Page 164 U. S. 120

all steps necessary therefor, including the election of officers as provided in the act; that the board of directors submitted to the electors the question whether a special assessment for

Page 164 U. S. 121

$6,000 should be made for the purpose of defraying the expenses of organization, and that the electors approved of such assessment, and the proper proceedings were thereafter taken

Page 164 U. S. 122

by which to assess the property owners, and that plaintiff Mrs. Bradley's assessment amounted to $51.31, which she refused to pay because the act was, as alleged, unconstitutional and void.

The bill further states that the collector then proceeded to enforce the collection by a sale of the land, and did sell it to the irrigation district, but that no deed has been given to the

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district by the collector, and an injunction is asked to restrain the execution and delivery of any deed by such collector because of the alleged invalidity of the act under which the proceedings were taken.

The bill also alleged a proposed issue of bonds to the amount of $400,000, subject to the decision of the electors at an election proposed to be held under the provisions of the act.

Various reasons are set out in the bill upon which are based the allegation of the invalidity of the act, among which it is stated that the law violates the federal Constitution in that it amounts to the taking of the plaintiff's property without due process of law. It is also stated that the act is in violation of the state constitution in many different particulars, which are therein set forth.

The bill also asks that the assessment may be set aside and all the proceedings declared void on the ground of the invalidity of the act itself.

The defendants demurred to the first bill of the complainants, and the demurrer was overruled. The complainants were granted leave to serve a second amended bill, to which the defendants put in an answer denying many of the material allegations of the bill and claiming the entire validity of the act.

The case came on for hearing before the circuit judge, by consent, upon the second amended bill of complainants and defendants' answer thereto, and the court gave judgment against the defendants because of the unconstitutionality of the irrigation act, it being, as held, in violation of the federal Constitution as the effect of such legislation by the state was to deprive complainants of their property without due process of law. The decision of the circuit judge was given for the reasons stated by him in his opinion rendered upon the argument of the demurrer to the bill of complainants, and some of the facts stated in the bill and admitted by the demurrer were denied in the answer subsequently served by the defendants. The sole ground of the decision was, however, the unconstitutionality of the act, as above stated. From

Page 164 U. S. 124

the judgment entered upon the decision of the circuit judge, the irrigation district appealed directly to this Court by virtue of the provisions of § 5, c. 517, of the Laws of 1891, 26 Stat. 826, which gave an appeal from the circuit court direct to the supreme court "in any case that involves the construction or application of the Constitution of the United States," and also "in any case in which the Constitution or law of a state is claimed to be in contravention to the Constitution of the United States."

Page 164 U. S. 151

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