RIGGS V. JOHNSON COUNTY, 73 U. S. 166 (1867)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Riggs v. Johnson County, 73 U.S. 6 Wall. 166 166 (1867)

Riggs v. Johnson County

73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 166


After a return unsatisfied of an execution on a judgment in the circuit court against a county for interest on railroad bonds, issued under a state statute in force prior to the issue of the bonds, and which made the levy of a tax to pay such interest obligatory on the county, a mandamus from the circuit court will lie against the county officers to levy a tax, even although prior to the application for the mandamus a state court have perpetually enjoined the same officers against making such levy; the mandamus, when so issued, being to be regarded as a writ necessary to the jurisdiction of the circuit court which had previously attached, and to enforce its judgment, and the state court therefore not being to be regarded as in prior possession of the case.

The case somewhat fully stated was thus:

Statutes of Iowa enact:

That the county commissioners of any county may submit to the people of it at any election, the question whether the county will aid to construct any road which may call for extraordinary expenditure.

That when a question so submitted involves the borrowing of money, the proposition of the question must be accompanied by a provision to lay a tax for the payment thereof in addition to the usual taxes, and no vote adopting the question proposed will be of effect unless it adopt the tax also.

That the county judge, on being satisfied that the above requirements have been substantially complied with, and that a majority of the votes cast are in favor of the proposition submitted, shall cause certain records to be made, after which the

Page 73 U. S. 167

vote and the entry thereof an the county records, shall have the force and effect of an act of the General Assembly.

That neither contracts made under propositions thus adopted, nor the taxes appointed for carrying them out, can be rescinded.

That money raised for such purposes is specially appropriated, and constitutes a fund distinct from all others in the hands of the treasurer, until the obligation assumed is discharged.

The questions, whether the foregoing statutory provisions authorized a county to aid in the construction of a railroad, and whether, if so, the legislature could, under the state constitution, confer such power upon counties, was adjudged in several decisions by the Supreme Court of Iowa in the affirmative. After these decisions, bonds were issued by several counties in the state, in aid of the construction of railroads. Subsequently to the issuing and negotiation of them, the Supreme Court of Iowa, on a review of their former decisions, overruled these decisions, and held that the above statute did not confer the power in question upon counties, and that the legislature could not constitutionally confer the power, and that bonds issued by the counties and cities of the state, in aid of the construction of railroads, were void. [Footnote 1]

This Court, however, in the case of Gelpcke v. City of Dubuque, [Footnote 2] and in other cases afterwards, refused to follow these later decisions of the Iowa court, and established, for the federal courts, that the earlier Iowa decisions, affirming the power to issue the bounds, should be regarded as decisive of the question, as to all bonds issued while those decisions remained unreversed. Notwithstanding which, however, the state courts apparently considered bonds in like case still void.

While the state decisions, that the county could issue such bonds, were yet unreversed, the commissioners of Johnson County issued, in a negotiable form, a large number of coupon bonds, payable to bearer. The bonds recited on

Page 73 U. S. 168

their face that they were issued under authority of the act of Assembly, and of the required vote &c., and (as the fact was) that they had been issued by the county for stock in a railroad company specified.

Marcus Riggs having become the holder of several of them, brought suit and obtained judgment in the Circuit Court of the United States for Iowa; but execution being issued, it was returned nulla bona. There was nothing which by the laws of Iowa -- where statutes exempt public property of a county and the property of the private citizen from being levied on to pay debts of a civil corporation -- could be found to satisfy the execution. After this, various taxpayers of the county filed a bill in chancery in one of the state courts against the county commissioners (none of the bondholders, however, being made parties to the proceeding or having notice of it), alleging that the bonds and coupons were void from the beginning, and had been repeatedly held so by the Supreme Court of Iowa, and praying a perpetual injunction to the commissioners against levying any tax to pay them, which injunction the state court granted. After the injunction upon this proceeding instituted in the state court had been issued, Riggs -- by petition reciting his judgment, unsatisfied after execution, and the fact that it was obtained on the bonds such as above described, reciting also the vote of the county to pay the tax, and that it had the effect of a law -- applied to the circuit court of the United States for a mandamus to the commissioners to compel them to lay a tax,

"sufficient to pay the amount of the said judgment and cost and of the principal and interest falling due for each year on said bonds, and especially the interest warrants or coupons included in the aforesaid judgment, and to continue the same from year to year, until the said bonds and coupons or interest warrants are fully paid, in payment for the coupons or interest warrants annexed to said bonds, now due and unpaid, an not included in the aforesaid judgment, and of such coupons or interest warrants as they shall become due."

The commissioners answered, making as return the injunction previously laid on them by the state court. Riggs demurred to the

Page 73 U. S. 169

answer, assigning four causes of demurrer, the substance of the one chiefly relied on, and considered here, being, that "after the judgment was rendered" in the circuit court, the state court had "no jurisdiction, power or authority" to prevent him "from using the PROCESS of this Court by writ of mandamus to collect his judgment."

The circuit court overruled the demurrer, and judgment was given for the commissioners. The case was now here on error.

To better understand the argument it may be well to state:

1. That by an act of Congress (sometimes called the Process Act), passed, first in 1789, and improved and made permanent in 1792, [Footnote 3] it was provided:

"That the forms of writs and executions, . . . and the modes of process, in suits at common law, . . . shall be the same in each state respectively as now used or allowed in the supreme courts of the states."

And by a later act [Footnote 4] (May, 1828):

"That writs of execution, and other final process issued on judgments rendered in the federal courts, and the proceedings thereupon, shall be the same in each state as are now used in the courts of such state."

2. That in the Revised Statutes of Iowa (A.D. 1860), a mandamus is stated to be, and thus regulated under the head:


"§ 3761. An order of a court of competent jurisdiction commanding an inferior tribunal, corporation, board, or person to do or not to do an act, the performance or omission of which the law specially enjoins as a duty."

"§ 3762. That the plaintiff shall state his claim and facts sufficient to constitute a cause for such claim."

"§ 3766. That the pleadings and other proceedings in any action

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in which a mandamus is claimed shall be the same in all respects, as nearly as may be, as in an ordinary action for the recovery of damages."

"§ 4181. That when the action of mandamus is by a private person there may be joined therewith the injunction of chapter 155, . . . and the action shall be by ordinary proceedings."

3. That by the fourteenth section of the Judiciary Act, [Footnote 5] it is enacted that circuit courts among others named:

"Shall have power to issue writs of scire facias, habeas corpus, and other writs not specially provided for by statute, which may be necessary for the exercise of their respective jurisdictions, and agreeable to the principles and usages of law."

4. That the same act, in the thirteenth section [Footnote 6] enacts that:

"The Supreme Court shall . . . have power to issue . . . writs of mandamus, . . . to any courts appointed or persons holding office ~ under the authority of the United States."

At the same time with the present case was another, Thompson v. Henry County, exactly like it in principle the two being argued consecutively.

Page 73 U. S. 184

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