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U.S. Supreme Court

Braxton County Court v. West Virginia, 208 U.S. 192 (1908)

Braxton County Court v. West Virginia

No. 124

Submitted January 14, 1908

Decided January 27, 1908

208 U.S. 192




Speaking generally, and subject to the rule that no state can set at naught the provisions of the national Constitution, the regulation of municipal corporations is peculiarly within state control, the legislature determining the taxing body, the taxing districts, and the limits of taxation.

Notwithstanding that plaintiff in error's charge of unconstitutionality of a state statute may not be frivolous, in order to give this Court jurisdiction to review the action of the state court sustaining the statute the question must be raised in this Court by one adversely affected by the decision and whose interest is personal, and not of an official nature. Smith, Auditor v. Indiana, 191 U. S. 138.

A county court of West Virginia has no personal interest in the amount of tax levy made by it which will give this Court jurisdiction to review at its instance the decision of the highest court of that state determining that the levy is excessive, even though the basis of request for review is the ground that the reduction of the assessment leaves the county unable for lack of funds to fulfill the obligations of its contracts.

60 W.Va.339 affirmed.

Sections 7 and 8, article 10, of the West Virginia Constitution of 1872 prohibit the county authorities, except in certain specified cases, from levying taxes in excess of ninety-five cents per $100 valuation. In 1904, the valuation of property in Braxton County was $2,799,604. The state legislature, at

Page 208 U. S. 193

an extraordinary session in 1904 and the regular session of 1905, changed the statute law in respect to taxation, largely remodeling the entire tax system. One of the objects of such legislation was to secure a more correct valuation of property. In 1906, under this new legislation, the assessed value of the property in Braxton County was $10,195,301, nearly four times the amount of the assessment in 1904. In view of an expected increase in valuation, the legislature enacted chapter 48 of the Acts of 1905 (Code of West Va. 1906, c. 39, § 29), by which it was provided that no county court should, in the year 1906, assess or levy taxes which should exceed by more than seven percent the aggregate amount of taxes levied by it in the year 1904. The levy made in the County of Braxton in 1904 of ninety-five cents on the $100 valuation produced the sum of $26,596.23, subject, of course, to such minor reductions as might come from delinquencies and exonerations. Therefore, under the act of 1905, the amount which the county court could levy in 1906 was the $26,596.23 plus an addition of not to exceed seven percent, or $1,861.73, making a total of $28,457.96. To raise this amount, a levy of not to exceed twenty-eight cents on each $100 was sufficient. The county court, however, made a levy of sixty-five cents on every $100, and caused it to be entered upon the records of the court. Such levy of sixty-five cents would produce the sum of $66,269.45, more than double the amount which was authorized under the legislation of 1905. Thereupon the state tax commissioner and certain residents and taxpayers of Braxton County applied to the supreme court of the state for a mandamus to compel the county court to change that assessment to conform to the requirements of the act of 1905. The county court made answer and return to the alternative writ of mandamus, pleading that the amount necessary during the current fiscal year to pay the necessary expenses, discharge the county debts and liabilities payable during that year, was at least $57,146, not including an amount for interest and sinking fund of certain railroad bonds theretofore legally issued by the county.

Page 208 U. S. 194

In other words, it may be said in a general way that the defense of the county court was that the sum authorized to be levied by the act of 1905 was insufficient to meet the ordinary expenses of the county, pay the interest, and provide a sinking fund for outstanding bonds. It was pleaded specifically that, at the time these railroad bonds were issued, there was not only no restriction upon the power of the county court to levy taxes for payment of the principal and interest thereof, but, on the contrary, that the general statutory law in force required the county to levy a tax in amount sufficient to pay the annual interest and provide a sinking fund. It was contended that these provisions entered into and became a part of the contract with the bondholders, and that the restrictions made by the act of 1905 worked an impairment of the obligation of the contract, and hence it was in conflict with § 10 of Article I of the federal Constitution.

The Supreme Court of appeals issued the mandamus as prayed for, whereupon the defendants brought the case here on error. State ex rel. Dillon v. County Court, 60 W.Va. 339.

Page 208 U. S. 197

MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Speaking generally, the regulation of municipal corporations is a matter peculiarly within the domain of state control. The taxing body, the taxing district, and the limits of taxation are determinable by the legislature of the state. Kelly v. Pittsburgh, 104 U. S. 78; Forsyth v. Hammond, 166 U. S. 506, and cases cited in the opinion; Williams v. Eggleston, 170 U. S. 304, 170 U. S. 310; 1 Dillon on Municipal Corporations (4th ed.), p. 52 and following. True, the legislature may sometimes, by restrictive legislation in respect to taxes, seek to prevent the payment by a municipality of its contract obligations, and in such a case the courts will enforce the protective clauses of the federal Constitution against any state legislation impairing the obligation of a contract. In other words, no state can, in respect to any matter, set at naught the paramount provisions of the national Constitution.

Again, that the act of the state is charged to be in violation of the national Constitution, and that the charge is not frivolous, does not always give this Court jurisdiction to review the judgment of a state court. The party raising the question of constitutionality and invoking our jurisdiction must be interested in, and affected adversely by, the act, and the interest must be of a personal, and not of an official, nature. Clark v. Kansas City, 176 U. S. 114, 176 U. S. 118; Lampasas v. Bell, 180 U. S. 276, 180 U. S. 283; Smith v. Indiana, 191 U. S. 138, 191 U. S. 148. In the latter case, suit was brought in the state court against a county auditor to test the constitutionality of the exemption law of Indiana, which was claimed to be in conflict with the federal Constitution. The decision of the state court having been in favor of the act, the auditor brought the case here. Mr. Justice Brown, delivering the opinion of the Court, cited the following cases: Tyler v. Registration Court Judges, 179 U. S. 405; Clark v. Kansas City, 176 U. S. 114; Turpin v. Lemon, 187 U. S. 51;

Page 208 U. S. 198

Lampasas v. Bell, 180 U. S. 276; Ludeling v. Chaffe, 143 U. S. 301; Giles v. Little, 134 U. S. 645, and said:

"These authorities control the present case. It is evident that the auditor had no personal interest in the litigation. He had certain duties as a public officer to perform. The performance of those duties was of no personal benefit to him. Their nonperformance was equally so. He neither gained nor lost anything by invoking the advice of the supreme court as to the proper action he should take. He was testing the constitutionality of the law purely in the interest of third persons, viz., the taxpayers, and in this particular the case is analogous to that of Caffrey v. Oklahoma, 177 U. S. 346. We think the interest of an appellant in this Court should be a personal, and not an official, interest, and that the defendant, having sought the advice of the courts of his own state in his official capacity, should be content to abide by their decision."

These decisions control this case and compel a dismissal of the writ of error, and it is so ordered.

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