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U.S. Supreme Court

Pittsburgh &c. Ry. v. Board of Public Works, 172 U.S. 32 (1898)

Pittsburgh &c. Railway v. Board of Public Works of West Virginia

No. 8

Submitted January 25, 1898

Decided November 28, 1898

172 U.S. 32


The collection of taxes assessed under the authority of a state is not to be restrained by writ of injunction from a court of the United States unless it clearly appears not only that the tax is illegal, but that the owner of the property taxed has no adequate remedy by the ordinary processes of the law and that there are special circumstances bringing the case within some recognized head of equity jurisdiction.

A railroad bridge across a navigable river forming the boundary line between two states is not, by reason of being an instrument of interstate commerce, exempt from taxation by either state upon the part within it. A railroad bridge is taxable under the Code of West Virginia of 1891, c. 29, § 67, and although the board of public works assesses separately the whole length of the railroad track within the state and that part of the bridge within the state, yet if the railroad company does not, as allowed by that section, apply to the auditor to correct any supposed mistake in the assessment, nor appeal, within thirty days after receiving notice of the decision of the board, to the circuit court of the county, and the officers of the state make no attempt to interfere with the company's possession and control of its real estate, nor, until after the expiration of the thirty days, either to impose a penalty for delay in paying the taxes or to levy on personal property for nonpayment of them, the company cannot maintain a bill in equity in a court of the United States to restrain the assessment and collection of any part of the taxes.

The Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Company, a corporation of the State of Ohio owning and operating a railway running through the states of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, under the laws of those states, and crossing the Ohio River, a navigable stream forming the boundary between the states of West Virginia

Page 172 U. S. 33

and Ohio by means of a bridge built, owned, and controlled by the plaintiff, filed in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of West Virginia, a bill in equity against the Board of Public Works of the State of West Virginia, a public corporation, against its members individually (being the governor, the auditor, the treasurer, the superintendent of free schools, and the Attorney General of the state) and against one Cowan, Sheriff of Brooke County, all of them citizens of that state, to restrain the assessment and collection of taxes upon the bridge, under section 67 of chapter 29 of the Code of West Virginia of 1891.

The bill alleged that under and by virtue of that section of the Code, the plaintiff was required, through its principal officers, to make return in writing, under oath, to the auditor of the state on or before the 1st of April in each year and in the manner prescribed by that section, of its property subject to taxation in the state; the auditor was required to bring the return, as soon as practicable, before the board of public works; that board was authorized either to approve the return or to proceed to assess and fix the fair cash value of all the property of railroad companies which they were so required to return for taxation, and it was further provided that as soon as possible after the value of any railroad property was fixed for purposes of taxation by one of the several methods designated by that section, the auditor should assess and charge such property with the taxes properly chargeable thereon.

The bill also alleged that the plaintiff's main line of railway ran through the State of West Virginia for a distance of 7.11 miles, of which 6.53 miles were in the County of Brooke, and 58 miles in the County of Hancock; that its bridge across the Ohio River was part of its railway; that the total length of the bridge, including its abutments, was 2,044 feet, of which 1,518 feet were in West Virginia and 526 feet in Ohio, and that the plaintiff, before April 1, 1894, as required by section 67 of chapter 29 of the Code, made to the Auditor of the State of West Virginia a return of its property subject to taxation in the state for the year 1894 (a copy of which was

Page 172 U. S. 34

annexed to and made part of the bill, and is set out in the margin *), and, in making that return, included, in the 7.11 miles of its main track, so much of the bridge as lay within the state, amounting to 1,518 feet.

The bill further alleged that, sometime in September, 1894, the board of public works, meeting at Charleston, in that state, as provided by that section of the Code, to assess and fix the

Page 172 U. S. 35

valuation of railroad property for the purposes of taxation, refused to approve the plaintiff's return, and proceeded, among other things, to assess the plaintiff with 6.53 miles of main track and 6.53 miles of second track in the County of Brooke, which assessment and valuation covered the entire length of its railroad in the State of West Virginia, including so much of the bridge as lay within the state; and, in addition thereto, valued and assessed the bridge, as a separate structure at the sum of $200,000, placing the tax upon the bridge at $3,060, and the auditor proceeded to assess the plaintiff with this sum of $3,060 -- thereby assessing it with the entire length of the bridge in West Virginia as a part of its railway in the state and also assessing it with the bridge as a separate structure, thus taxing the plaintiff a second time for that part of its bridge which lay in West Virginia, whereas the bridge should only have been assessed as so many feet of the railway,

The bill further alleged that neither the board of public works, nor any member thereof, nor the auditor, informed the plaintiff of the valuation which had been placed upon its property by the board for taxation, nor of the taxes which had been assessed thereon by the auditor; that, on September 28, 1894, the plaintiff, not having been informed of the action of the board or of the auditor, addressed, through its chief engineer, a letter to the auditor inquiring what action had been taken by the board of public works and the auditor with regard to the assessment of taxes on its property for 1894; that the letter was not answered, nor was any information in regard to the taxes given to the plaintiff until January 19, 1895, when it received from the auditor a statement showing that the board of public works had placed a separate and additional valuation of $200,000 upon the bridge for the purposes of taxation, and that the auditor had proceeded to assess and charge the plaintiff with the sum of $3,060 as a tax for 1894 upon that valuation, and that, on January 19, 1895, the auditor demanded of the plaintiff payment of that sum, and the plaintiff refused to pay it, but paid to the auditor the rest of the taxes assessed, amounting to the sum of $4,187, upon a valuation

Page 172 U. S. 36

of $310,830, which included the plaintiff's railroad in the County of Hancock.

The bill further alleged that "on the ___ day of _____, 1895," the auditor added ten percent to the sum of $3,060, to pay the expense of collection, and certified that sum, with the ten percent added, to the Sheriff of Brooke County for collection, and that the sheriff "since said date" had demanded payment of the sum of $3,060 and the ten percent additional, and was threatening to collect them by legal process, and would thus inflict irreparable injury upon the plaintiff unless prevented by the interposition of a court of competent jurisdiction.

The plaintiff further alleged that the bridge constituted a part of its line of railway, and had no separate earning capacity, and no greater earning capacity than any other equal number of feet of its line of railway, and was used exclusively by it in transporting freight and passengers across the Ohio River to and from the States of West Virginia and Ohio, and that it was advised and believed that the bridge was an instrument of interstate commerce, and was not, as a separate structure from its line of railway, a proper subject for taxation by the State of West Virginia in the manner above set forth.

The bill then charged that the tax upon the bridge was illegal and unjust, and constituted a cloud upon the title to the bridge, and that, by reason of that clause of the Constitution of the United States which gives Congress control over interstate commerce, the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of West Virginia was clothed with authority and jurisdiction to restrain and to prevent the assessment and collection of this illegal and unjust tax, and prayed for an injunction against its assessment and collection, and for further relief.

The bill was sworn to March 18, 1895, and was filed March 25, 1895, together with an affidavit to the effect that, since the bill was sworn to, the sheriff had levied upon one of the plaintiff's freight engines for the purpose of enforcing the collection of the tax upon the bridge. Upon the filing of the bill, a temporary injunction was granted as prayed for.

A general demurrer to the bill was afterwards filed and

Page 172 U. S. 37

sustained, the injunction dissolved, and the bill dismissed. The plaintiff appealed to this Court under the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 517, § 5, 26 Stat. 828.

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