MICHIGAN CENTRAL R. CO. V. POWERS, 201 U. S. 245 (1906)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Michigan Central R. Co. v. Powers, 201 U.S. 245 (1906)

Michigan Central Railroad Company v. Powers

No. 37

Argued February 21, 23, 26, 1906

Decided April 2, 1906

201 U.S. 245


A state statute may be unconstitutional because conflicting with the constitution of the state or with that of the United States, but all objections

Page 201 U. S. 246

to its validity, whether state or federal, may be presented in a single suit, and call for consideration and determination, and as a federal court has the jurisdiction, it may be its duty, when the question is properly presented, to pass upon an alleged conflict between a state statute and the state constitution even before the question has been considered by the state tribunals. It will, however, be reluctant to do so, especially when the statute is one affecting public revenues of the state.

There is no general supervision by the Nation over state taxation, in regard to which the state has, generally speaking, the freedom of a sovereign both as to objects and methods.

While there is always a possibility of misconduct on the part of officials, legislation may proceed on the assumption of their properly discharging their duties.

Where a legislature enacts a specific rule for fixing a rate of taxation, by which rule the rate is mathematically deduced from facts and events occurring within the year, and created without reference to the matter of that rate, there is no abdication of the legislative function, but, on the contrary, there is a direct legislative determination of that rate.

Unless there is some specific provision in the state constitution compelling other action, a state may treat its entire territory as composing but a single taxing district, and deal with all property as within the district and subject it to taxation accordingly.

This Court may, in a case of this nature, take judicial notice of the fact that the Michigan is traversed in almost every direction by railroads, and that the county in which there are no railroads, if any there be, is an exception.

Nothing in the federal Constitution prevents a state from separating a particular class of property and subjecting it to assessment and taxation in a mode and by a rate different from that imposed on other property and applying the proceeds to state, rather than local, purposes.

One hearing is sufficient to constitute due process, and a state statute giving a state assessing board power to correct valuations, naming time and place at which any person interested may be heard, does not deprive the persons assessed of their property without due process of law because those parties do not have further opportunities to be heard by a court or the legislature.

A legislature is not bound to impose the same rate of tax upon one class of property that it does upon another; it is sufficient if all of the same class are subjected to the same rate and the tax is administered impartially upon them.

This Court generally accepts the finding of a trial court upon a question of fact when the evidence is conflicting, and so held in this case as to a charge of systematic undervaluation which the trial court found against.

Act No. 173, Michigan Laws of 1901, imposing upon railroad and corporate

Page 201 U. S. 247

property the average rate of tax upon other property subject to ad valorem taxes, applying the proceeds to state purposes, and providing for ascertaining the rate by mathematical computations by the state board of assessors based upon reports from the local assessors, does not conflict with the constitution of the state or with that of the United States.

This suit was brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Michigan to restrain the respondent, the Auditor General of the state, from enforcing against the appellant the provisions of Act No. 173 of the Michigan Laws of 1901, an act to provide for the assessment of the property of railroad and certain other companies, for the levying of taxes thereon by a state board of assessors, and for the collection of such taxes. The taxes involved in the suit are those for 1902, resulting from the first assessment under the statute. Prior to the year 1900, the Constitution of Michigan contained, in Art. XIV, the following sections applicable to taxation:

"SEC. 10. The state may continue to collect all specific taxes accruing to the treasury under existing laws. The legislature may provide for the collection of specific taxes from banking, railroad, plank road, and other corporations hereafter created."

"SEC. 11. The legislature shall provide a uniform rule of taxation, except on property paying specific taxes, and taxes shall be levied on such property as shall be prescribed by law."

"SEC. 12. All assessments hereafter authorized shall be on property at its cash value."

"SEC. 13. The legislature shall provide for an equalization by a state board in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-one, and every fifth year thereafter, of assessments on all taxable property except that paying specific taxes."

"SEC. 14. Every law which imposes, continues, or revives a tax shall distinctly state the tax, and the object to which it is to be applied, and it shall not be sufficient to refer to any other law to fix such tax or object. "

Page 201 U. S. 248

In that year sections 10, 11, and 13 were amended so as to read as follows:

"SEC. 10. The state may continue to collect all specific taxes accruing to the treasury under existing laws. The legislature may provide for the collection of specific taxes from corporations. The legislature may provide for the assessment of the property of corporations at its true cash value, by a state board of assessors, and for the levying and collection of taxes thereon. All taxes hereafter levied on the property of such classes of corporations as are paying specific taxes under laws in force on November sixth, A.D. nineteen hundred, shall be applied as provided for specific state taxes in section 1 of this article."

"SEC. 11. The legislature shall provide an uniform rule of taxation, except on property paying specific taxes, and taxes shall be levied on such property as shall be prescribed by law: Provided, That the legislature shall provide an uniform rule of taxation for such property as shall be assessed by a state board of assessors, and the rate of taxation on such property shall be the rate which the state board of assessors shall ascertain and determine is the average rate levied upon other property upon which ad valorem taxes are assessed for state, county, township, school, and municipal purposes."

"SEC. 13. In the year one thousand nine hundred and one, and every fifth year thereafter, and at such other times as the legislature may direct, the legislature shall provide for an equalization of assessments by a state board, on all taxable property, except that taxed under laws passed pursuant to section 10 of this article."

This change in the Constitution was doubtless owing to a decision of the supreme court of the state, Pingree v. Auditor General, 120 Mich. 95, of date of April 26, 1899, holding unconstitutional an act passed in 1881 in respect to the assessment and taxation of telegraph and telephone lines. An Act 19 of 1899, passed March 15, 1899, and commonly called the "Atkinson Bill," was subject to the same objections as the

Page 201 U. S. 249

act of 1881, and was evidently regarded as equally unconstitutional. Indeed, though not directly involved in that suit, it was referred to in the opinion of Mr. Justice Montgomery.

The act in controversy, Pub. Acts 1901, act No. 173, provides that the board of state tax commissioners shall constitute a state board of assessors, who are to assess the railroad and certain other corporate property in the state. Section 5 contains the following:

"SEC. 5. The term 'property' as used in this act shall be deemed to include all property, real or personal, belonging to the corporation subject to taxation under this act, including the right of way, roadbed, stations, cars, rolling stock, tracks, wagons, horses, office furniture, telegraph or telephone poles, wires, conduits, switchboards and all other property used in carrying on the business of said corporations or owned by them respectively, and all other real and personal property and all franchises, said franchises not to be directly assessed, but to be taken into consideration in determining the value of the other property: Provided, however, That this definition shall not include, apply to, or subject to taxation such real estate as is owned and can be conveyed by such corporations under the laws of this state which is not actually occupied in the exercise of their franchises or in use in the proper operation of their roads or their corporate business; but such real estate so excepted shall be liable to taxation in the same manner and for the same purposes and to the same extent and subject to the same conditions and limitations as to the collection and return of taxes thereon as is other real estate in the several townships or municipalities in which the same may be situate. The terms 'company,' 'corporations,' or 'associations,' wherever used in this act, shall apply to and be construed as referring respectively to any railroad company, union station and depot company, express company, car-loaning company, or refrigerator or fast freight line company, and any and all other corporations subject to taxation under this act. The term 'property having a situs in this state' shall include all the property, real and personal,

Page 201 U. S. 250

of the corporations enumerated in this act, owned, used, and occupied by them within the limits of this state, and also such proportion of the rolling stock, cars, and other property of such corporations as is used partly within and partly without this state, as herein provided to be determined."

By sections 6 and 7, the several corporations are required to furnish information as to various matters of fact bearing on the matter of assessment. By section 8, property is to be assessed at its "true cash value" on the second Monday of April of each year, and, for the purposes of the assessment, the board of assessors is authorized to make personal inspection of the property, to take into consideration the reports filed under the act, and such other evidence as may be obtainable bearing thereon. In respect to the property of railroads running partly within and partly without the state, the board is directed to be guided in respect to the matter of taxation of property within the state by the relation which the number of miles of main tract within the state bears to the entire mileage of the main track, both within and without the state. By section 10, the board is required to meet at the capitol at Lansing on the third Monday of December, and continue in session so long as may be necessary, not later than January 15 next thereafter, for the purpose of reviewing the assessment roll, and any person or company interested has the right to appear during said period and be heard by the assessors, and they are authorized on such application, or on their own motion, to correct the assessment or valuation. Sections 11 and 12 prescribe the method for fixing the rate of tax, the purpose being to impose upon the railroad property the average rate of taxation levied upon other property upon which ad valorem taxes are assessed. This method is accurately described by counsel for the railroad company in these words:

"The new and peculiar feature of the statute lies in the application to corporate property of a special rate of tax, known as the 'average rate,' which is derived by the following process: the total ad valorem taxes for all purposes -- state, county, city,

Page 201 U. S. 251

township, village, and school district -- paid by property in Michigan which is taxed otherwise than under act 173, are divided by the total assessments of such property, whether made by one or another assessor, and the quotient resulting from this process of division is the rate of tax applied to corporate property under Act 173."

By section 16, the taxes collected from corporations under this act are to

"be applied in paying the interest upon the primary school, university, and other educational funds, and the interest and principal of the state debt, in the order herein recited, until the extinguishment of the state debt other than the amounts due to educational funds, when such taxes shall be added to and constitute a part of the primary school interest fund."

After a full hearing upon pleadings and proofs, the circuit court entered a decree dismissing the bill, 138 F.2d 3, whereupon the plaintiff appealed directly to this Court, under section 5 of the Circuit Court of Appeals Act.

Page 201 U. S. 290

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