KEOKUK & HAMILTON BRIDGE CO. V. SALM, 258 U. S. 122 (1922)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Co. v. Salm, 258 U.S. 122 (1922)

Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Co. v. Salm

No. 130

Argued January 27, 1922

Decided February 27, 1922

258 U.S. 122




1. A bridge owned by a bridge company and used for railroad purposes is assessable in Illinois as real estate by the assessor of the county in which it lies, and not by the state Board of Equalization as a railroad. P. 258 U. S. 123.

2. A bill in the district court to enjoin enforcement of a state tax on real property as based on a discriminatory overvaluation, which fails to show that the plaintiff availed himself of presumably adequate legal remedies afforded by the state law or, the amount being the only matter in dispute, that he paid or tendered the amount confessedly due, and which does not offer to pay such amount as the court may find to be equitably due, should be dismissed for want of equity. P. 258 U. S. 124.


Appeal from a decree of the district court dismissing the bill for want of equity in a suit brought by the appellant

Page 258 U. S. 123

to restrain the appellees, county officials, from collecting a tax on the appellant's bridge, alleged to discriminate, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Company, an Illinois corporation, owns a bridge across the Mississippi River. That part of it which lies within the State of Illinois was assessed by the county assessors for purposes of taxation as real estate, and was valued at $100,000. To prevent collection of the tax, the company brought, in the federal court for Southern Illinois, this suit for an injunction against the county treasurer and other state officials. It is claimed that the tax is void first, because the bridge is a railroad and as such is assessable only by the State Board of Equalization; secondly, because the property was deliberately assessed at 150 percent of its actual value, whereas the property of other corporations and individuals was assessed at only 40 percent of its value, and that thus the company is deprived of property without due process of law and is denied equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. A motion to dismiss was sustained by the district court on the ground that the complainant has a plain, adequate, and complete remedy at law. The case comes here on appeal under § 238 of the Judicial Code because of the constitutional question raised. That such property is assessable by the county officials as real estate, and not by the State Board of Equalization as a railroad, was settled by People v.

Page 258 U. S. 124

Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Co., 287 Ill. 246, 295 Ill. 176, 181. *

Whether the bill sets forth a case for equitable relief is the only question requiring consideration.

Since the appellant asserted a claim arising under the federal Constitution, the district court had jurisdiction, although there was no diversity of citizenship. Discrimination in taxation effected by systematic inequality of assessment may violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Greene v. Louisville & Interurban Railroad Co., 244 U. S. 499, 244 U. S. 502. But the bill failed to show that plaintiff was being deprived of property without due process of law or was being denied equal protection of the laws, or that there was any danger that it would be. Compare Wells Fargo & Co. v. Nevada, 248 U. S. 165, 248 U. S. 168. The law of Illinois affords ample opportunity to question the amount and the validity of an assessment both before administrative tribunals and in its courts.

The provisions relating to the assessment and taxation of real estate apply to the assessment and taxation of bridge structures like that of the appellant. Hurd's Revised Statutes of Illinois 1919, c. 120, § 354. Every such assessment made by the county assessors is subject to revision by them. Sections 319, 320. Moreover, upon complaint in writing that an assessment is incorrect, a board of review is required to give a hearing, and to correct the assessment "as shall appear to be just." Section 329; Standard Oil Co. v. Magee, 191 Ill. 84. Payment of taxes as finally assessed and extended against real estate is enforced, in the first instance, not by distraint or levy, but by legal proceedings. Sections 185-193. An application is made by the collector to the county court for judgment against the property. Compare Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Co. v. People, 145 Ill. 596, 161 Ill. 514, 167 Ill. 15, 176 Ill. 267.

Page 258 U. S. 125

The proceeding in the county court is a civil suit for the collection of a debt. People v. Merchants' Bridge Co., 282 Ill. 408. The owner may appear and defend on any legal ground -- among others, that the assessment was deliberately or fraudulently discriminatory, and that hence the tax is void. People v. Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Co., 287 Ill. 246, 295 Ill. 176. From the judgment of the county court, an appeal may be taken to the supreme court of the state upon giving a bond to pay the amount of the assessment and costs, and the appeal will operate as a supersedeas if the appellant deposits with the county collector an amount of money equal to the amount of the judgment and costs. If, upon final hearing, judgment for sale of the lands for taxes is refused, the deposit is returned by the collector to the appellant. Section 192. Moreover, where it is claimed that a tax is void because of overvaluation which is fraudulently discriminatory, the courts of the state will grant relief in equity if the plaintiff has sought correction from the board of review and failed to secure redress. Sanitary District v. Young, 285 Ill. 351, 367. Here, the alleged invalidity consists wholly in discriminatory overvaluation, and, so far as appears, appellant did not even apply to the board of review to correct the assessment. There is thus no basis for the contention that resort to a suit such as this was necessary to prevent either a sale for an illegal tax creating a cloud upon title or multiplicity of suits to recover back the tax, or other irreparable injury. See Singer Co. v. Benedict, 229 U. S. 481; Ohio Tax cases, 232 U. S. 576, 232 U. S. 587; Farncomb v. Denver, 252 U. S. 7.

The bill fails, also for another reason, to state a case entitling plaintiff to relief. Before the suit was begun, it had been decided that the taxing statute was valid, that the property was subject to taxation, that it was assessable as real estate, and that the assessment should be made, as

Page 258 U. S. 126

was done, by the county assessor, and not by the state Board of Equalization. The amount of the tax payable was therefore the only matter in controversy. Under such circumstances, a plaintiff seeking an injunction must aver payment or tender of the amount of taxes confessedly due, or at least offer to pay such amount as the court may find to be justly and equitably due. People's National Bank v. Marye, 191 U. S. 272; Raymond v. Chicago Traction Co., 207 U. S. 20, 207 U. S. 38. The bill contains no such allegation.

Decree affirmed.

* That so much of the bridge as lies within the state of Illinois is taxable there, although used in interstate commerce, was held in Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Co. v. Illinois, 175 U. S. 626.

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