STEARNS V. MINNESOTA, 179 U. S. 223 (1900)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stearns v. Minnesota, 179 U.S. 223 (1900)

Stearns v. Minnesota

No. 20

Argued October 16, 17, 1900

Decided December 3, 1900

179 U.S. 223


The constitution of Minnesota of 1858, still in force, provided that all taxes should be as nearly equal as may be, and that the property taxed should be equalized and uniform throughout the State. It made provision for certain defined exemptions, and provided for uniform and equal taxation throughout the State. Before that time, namely, on September 28, 1850, Congress had granted to the several States, Minnesota included, the swamped and overflowed lands within each, and other grants were subsequently made, as stated in the opinion of the court, subject to be taxed only as the land should be sold. There were also statutes passed in regard to the taxation of land granted to the Lake Superior and Pacific Railroad Company, which are set forth in the opinion of the court. In 1896, an act was passed repealing all former laws exempting from taxation and providing for the taxation of the lands granted to railroad as other lands were assessed and taxed.

Held, that, in this legislation, a valid contract was created, providing for the taxation of all railroad property (lands included) on the basis of a percent of the gross earnings, which contract was impaired by the legislation of 1896, withdrawing the lands from the arrangement and directing their taxation according to their actual cash value; that, as to the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad Company, a contract was made, and only Congress can inquire into the manner in which the State executed the trust thereby created and disposed of the lands, and that, as to the Northern Pacific Company, the legislation changed materially the terms of the contract between the State and that company.

This case comes on error to the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota, is brought here at the instance of certain railroad companies, and involves the question whether the real estate belonging to them, and not used in the operation of their roads is subject to taxation according to its value, or is excepted from such ordinary rule of taxation by virtue of a contract alleged to have been made many years ago by legislation of the State, to the effect that railroad companies should pay a certain percent on their gross earnings in lieu of taxes on all their property.

The facts are as follows, and first as to lands belonging to the St. Paul and Duluth Company:

Page 179 U. S. 224

The constitution of Minnesota, adopted in 1858, has always contained these provisions (Article IX, sections 1 and 3):

"SEC. 1. All taxes to be raised in this State shall be as nearly equal as may be, and all property on which taxes are to be levied shall have a cash valuation, and be equalized and uniform throughout the State."

"SEC. 3. Laws shall be passed taxing all moneys, credits, investments in bonds, stocks, joint stock companies, or otherwise, and also all real and personal property according to its true value in money; but public burying grounds, public school houses, public hospitals, academies, colleges, universities, and all seminaries of learning, all churches, church property used for religious purposes, and houses of worship, institutions of purely public charity, public property used exclusively for any public purpose, and personal property to an amount not exceeding in value two hundred dollars for each individual, shall, by general laws, be exempt from taxation."

On May 23, 1857, by the territorial legislature of Minnesota, the Nebraska and Lake Superior Railroad Company was organized. Laws, Minn. 1857, c. 93, p. 323. By an act of the state legislature, of date March 8, 1861, the name of this company was changed to the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company. Laws, Minn. 1861, p. 201. By this act, certain of the swamp lands granted to the State by the act of Congress of September 28, 1850, 9 Stat. 519, were granted to that company to aid in the construction of its railroad. The St. Paul and Duluth Company is the successor in interest of that company, and has succeeded to all its rights, privileges, immunities and property. By act of Congress of date May 5, 1864, 13 Stat. 64, as amended July 13, 1866, 14 Stat. 93, lands were granted to the State of Minnesota to aid in building a railroad from the city of St. Paul to the head of Lake Superior. The first section declaring the grant reads:

"That there be, and there is hereby, granted to the State of Minnesota for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad in such State from the city of St. Paul to the head of Lake Superior, every alternate section of public land,"

etc. Section 5 reads:

"That the said lands hereby granted when patented to said

Page 179 U. S. 225

State, shall be subject to the disposal of said State for the purposes aforesaid, and for no other, and the said railroad shall be and remain a public highway for the use of the Government of the United States, free from all toll or other charge, for the transportation of any property or troops of the United States."

On February 23, 1865, the legislature of Minnesota passed an act accepting the grant, and transferring the lands to the predecessor of the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Company. Special Laws, Minn. 1865, c. 2., p. 19. The first section, after accepting the lands granted, reads:

"And the same are hereby granted, vested in, and transferred to the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company, its successors and assigns, to be held, used or sold and disposed of by said railroad company, to aid in the construction of a railroad, as contemplated and provided by said act of Congress, and for the equipment and operation of the same, and for no other purpose whatever, the same to be held, used, and disposed of upon and subject to the conditions in said act of Congress provided, and upon the conditions in this act contained. That in consideration of lands granted by this act, and of the lands, rights, privileges and franchises which have heretofore been granted to said railroad company, the said company shall, on or before the first day of March of each and every year after said railroad is completed and in operation, pay into the treasury of the State three percent on the gross earnings of said railroad, which sum shall be in lieu and in full of all taxation and assessments upon the said railroad, its appurtenances and appendages, and all other property of said company, real, personal and mixed, including the lands hereby and heretofore granted to said company, or so intended to be granted. Provided, however, that the lands hereby and heretofore granted to said company shall be subject to like lands of individuals, to be taxed as fast as the same are sold or conveyed, or contracted to be sold, or are leased by said company, or the stumpage upon any lands is sold or contracted to be sold by said company; but no mortgage or trust deed executed by said company upon said lands shall, for the purpose of taxation, be construed as such sale, conveyance, lease or contract of sale. "

Page 179 U. S. 226

Eight days thereafter, and on March 3, 1865, an act amendatory of this act was passed. Special Laws, 1865, c. 8, p. 4. The first section of this act is as follows:

"1. That whenever any lands heretofore or hereafter granted to the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company to aid in the construction or completion of its road or branches shall be contracted to be sold, conveyed or leased by said company, the same shall be placed upon the tax list by the proper officer for taxation as other real estate for the year succeeding that in which such contract for a sale, conveyance or lease thereof shall have been made, but in enforcing a collection of the taxes thereon, the title or interest of the said company or of any trustee or mortgagee thereof shall be in nowise impaired or affected thereby, but the improvements thereon and all the interest of the purchaser or lessee therein may and shall in case of default in the payment of taxes upon such land be sold to satisfy the same, and it shall be the duty of the proper officers to assess and collect such taxes in accordance with the general laws relating to the assessment and collection of taxes, and that the provisions of the several acts in relation to the taxation of the lands of said company, so far as the mode of taxing such lands conflict with the provisions of this act, shall be and they are repealed. Provided, that said company shall, during the first three years after thirty miles of said railroad shall be completed and in operation, on or before the first day of March in each and every year, pay into the treasury of the State one percent on the gross earnings of said railroad, the first payment to be made on the first day of March next after thirty miles of said railroad shall be completed and in operation, and shall, during the seven years next ensuing after the expiration of the three years aforesaid, pay into the treasury of this State, on or before the first day of March of each and every year, two percent of the gross earnings of said railroad, and shall, from and after the expiration of said seven years, on or before the first day of March of each and every year, pay into the treasury of this State three percent of the gross earnings of said railroad, and the payment of such percentum annually, as aforesaid, shall be and is in full of all taxation and assessment whatever. "

Page 179 U. S. 227

The second section provided for acceptance of the provisions of the act by the railroad company; that, when accepted "the same shall become obligatory upon the State and upon said company;" and they were accepted. Thereafter, as admitted, the railroad was constructed by the company "in reliance upon said act." Taxes were paid by the railroad company on its property in accordance with the terms of this alleged contract until 1895, and during those years, the State made no attempt to levy any taxes upon these lands. In 1871, the following amendment to the state constitution was by vote of the people duly adopted (Laws, Minn. 1871, p. 41):

"Any law providing for the repeal or amendment of any law or laws heretofore or hereafter enacted, which provides that any railroad company now existing in this State or operating its road therein, or which may be hereafter organized, shall in lieu of all other taxes and assessments upon their real estate, roads, rolling stock and other personal property at and during the time and periods therein specified, pay into the treasury of this State a certain percentum therein mentioned of the gross earnings of such railroad companies now existing, or hereafter organized, shall, before the same shall take effect or be in force, be submitted to a vote of the people of the State, and be adopted and ratified by a majority of the electors of the State voting at the election at which the same shall be submitted to them."

In November, 1896, this statute, passed in 1895, Laws 1895, p. 378, was adopted by the people:

"SEC. 1. All lands in this State heretofore or hereafter granted by the State of Minnesota or the United States or the Territory of Minnesota to any railroad company shall be assessed and taxed as other lands are taxed in this State, except such parts of said lands as are held, used or occupied for rights of way, gravel pits, side tracks, depots and all buildings and structures which are necessarily used in the actual management and operation of the railroads of said companies. Provided, that said railroad companies shall continue to pay taxes into the state treasury upon their gross earnings in the same manner and in the same amount as is now provided by law, and that nothing

Page 179 U. S. 228

in this act contained shall be construed to repeal said laws, except insofar as the same relate to the tax upon said lands."

"SEC. 2. Such portion or portions of any act or acts, general or special, of the State or Territory of Minnesota heretofore enacted which provides or attempts to provide for any exemption of lands hereby declared taxable, from taxation, or for any other method of taxing said last mentioned lands different from the method of taxing other lands in this State, or which are in any manner inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are hereby repealed."

"SEC. 3. If this act shall be held to be void, so far as it applies to the land of any particular railroad company in this State, it shall not be ground for declaring it void or inapplicable to any other company not similarly situated."

Under these provisions, the State proceeded to levy taxes upon the lands of the St. Paul and Duluth Company, and the validity of such taxation is the question involved.

Lands belonging to the Northern Pacific Railway Company are also involved in this litigation, and the facts in reference to those lands are these: on July 2, 1864, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was chartered by an act of Congress to build a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific, and received a grant of public lands to aid in the construction thereof. The lands thus granted are those in respect to which the question of taxability arises. 13 Stat. 365. By section 17 of that act, the company was authorized to accept

"any grant, donation, loan, power, franchise, aid or assistance which may be granted to or conferred upon said company by the Congress of the United States, or by the legislature of any State, or by any corporation, person or persons, and said corporation is authorized to hold and enjoy any such grant, donation, loan, power, franchise, aid or assistance, to its own use, for the purpose aforesaid."

By section 18, it was required to obtain the consent of the legislature of any State through which, in the operation of its road, it might pass previous to commencing work. Such consent as obtained from Minnesota by an act of the legislature of that State, approved March 2, 1865. Laws, 1865, p. 48. On March 4, 1870, the legislature of Minnesota passed an act

Page 179 U. S. 229

(Special Laws, Minn. 1870, p. 338), the first and second sections of which are as follows:

"SEC. 1. That the lands, franchises, property, stock and capital of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company shall be liable to assessment and taxation at the same rate and in the same manner, and not otherwise, and shall be exempt from assessment and taxation to the same extent and upon the same terms and conditions as the lands, property and franchises of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company, as is provided in and by an act entitled 'An act in relation to the taxation of lands granted to the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company,' approved March third, eighteen hundred and sixty-five. Provided, however, That the gross earnings of said railroad company on which a percentage is to be paid to the State shall include only the earnings of that portion of the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed and operated by said company within the limits of this State."

"SEC. 2. That said Northern Pacific Railroad Company shall have the right and authority to acquire and hold lands for right of way, depot grounds, and for all necessary purposes of said company in all respects as provided by the general laws of this State, as set forth in sections numbered consecutively thirteen to twenty-seven, inclusive, of chapter thirty-four, title one, of General Statutes now in force. But where said company proceeds to condemn private property in more than one county in the same proceedings, the commissioners to be appointed shall be residents of the county where the property to be taken is situated, or of the county to which such county is attached for judicial purposes. And there is hereby granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company the right of way through and over any lands of this State to the same extent as is granted by act of Congress through and over the public lands to said company."

This act was duly accepted by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Thereafter, its road was constructed, and up to the act of 1895, supra, taxes were levied and paid in the manner prescribed. The validity of taxes levied upon the lands of this company since the act of 1895, and under the authority of that

Page 179 U. S. 230

act, is challenged, and becomes in this litigation one of the questions involved.

Lands belonging to the Great Northern Railway Company were also involved in the litigation in the state courts, but that company is not here making any contention for a reversal of the judgment of the state Supreme Court.

After the act of 1895, approved by the vote of the people, proceedings were instituted to enforce the levy of taxes on the lands of these railroad companies, and the proceedings thus instituted are those which are now before us. The decision of the Supreme Court of the State was adverse to the railroad companies (72 Minnesota 200), and the case is here on error to that judgment.

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