BENNETT V. HUNTER, 76 U. S. 326 (1869)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bennett v. Hunter, 76 U.S. 9 Wall. 326 326 (1869)

Bennett v. Hunter

76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 326


1. The Act of 5 August, 1861, "To provide increased revenue from imports, to pay interest on the public debt, and for other purposes," and the Act of June 7, 1862, "for the collection of direct taxes in insurrectionary districts within the United States and for other purposes" are to be construed together, and so construed, their primary object is to be regarded as having been the raising of revenue.

2. Thus construed, the first clause of the 4th section of the act of 1862 -- which clause enacts

"That the title of, in, and to each and every piece and parcel of land upon which said tax has not been paid as above provided shall thereupon become forfeited to the United States"

does not operate proprio vigore, to vest the title of the land in the United States upon nonpayment of the tax, that clause being followed immediately by another which says

"and upon the sale hereinafter provided for shall vest in the United States or in the purchasers at such sale in fee simple, free and discharged from all prior liens, encumbrances, right, title, and claim whatsoever."

The first clause merely declares the ground of the forfeiture of title -- namely nonpayment of taxes -- while the second clause was intended to work the actual investment of the title in the United States or in the purchaser at the tax sale through a public act of the government.

3. Under the act of 1862, the right to pay the tax and relieve the land from sale is not limited to sixty days after the fixing of the amount of it by the proper authorities. Payment prior to sale is sufficient.

4. Payment of the tax, which the act requires to be made by the owner, need not necessarily be made by the owner in person. It is enough that it be made by him acting through some friend or agent, compensated or uncompensated -- any person, in short, willing to act in his behalf and whose act is not disavowed by him.

Page 76 U. S. 327

By an Act of August 5, 1861, [Footnote 1] passed in quite the early part of the late rebellion, Congress having laid a duty on incomes, imposed a direct tax of $20,000,000 per annum upon the whole of the United States, of which a certain sum was apportioned to Virginia. The act provided that the tax should be assessed and laid on all lands according to their money value on the 1st of April, 1862, and it provided for the assessment and collection of the tax and authorized the sale of so much of the lands of delinquent payers as might be necessary to satisfy the taxes due thereon, and furthermore provided that at any time after the advertisement for sale and before actual sale, the delinquent taxpayer might pay the amount assessed with ten percent penalty, and thus relieve his lands, and yet further that in the event of a sale of property for nonpayment of the tax assessed thereon, the owners, their heirs, executors, administrators or any person in their behalf might redeem the same within a certain period thereafter. The act also provided that if, at the time it went into operation, any of the people of any state should be in actual rebellion, so that the laws of the United States could not be executed therein, it should be the duty of the President to collect both land tax and income tax, with six percent interest, according to the provisions of the act, as soon as the authority of the government should be reestablished.

Afterwards, however, the rebellion having now become widespread and assumed far greater magnitude, an Act of June 7, 1862, [Footnote 2] declared that when in any state the civil authority of the government of the United States should be obstructed by insurrection or rebellion so that the provisions of the former statute could not be peaceably executed, the direct taxes apportioned by that statute should be apportioned and charged in each state wherein the civil authority was thus obstructed upon all the lands situate therein, respectively &c., as the same were enumerated and valued under the last assessment and valuation thereof made under

Page 76 U. S. 328

the authority of said state or territory previous to January 1, 1861, and every parcel of the said lands, according to the said valuation, was declared to be charged, by virtue of the act itself with the payment of so much of the whole tax laid and apportioned by said act upon the state wherein the same was situate as should bear the same direct proportion to the whole amount of the direct tax apportioned to said state as the value of said parcels of land should respectively bear to the whole valuation of the real estate in the said state according to the said assessment and valuation made under the authority of the same, and in addition thereto with a penalty of fifty percentum of said tax.

The 3d section allowed the owner or owners of the lands, within sixty days after the amount of the tax charged thereon, respectively, should have been fixed by a board of tax commissioners (the appointment of which was provided for by the act), to pay the same to the commissioners, and take a certificate thereof, by virtue of which the lands should be discharged from the tax.

The 4th section (which, if we divide the enactment into two clauses, reads thus) enacted as follows:

1st clause.

"That the title of, in, and to each and every piece or parcel of land upon which said tax has not been paid as above provided, shall thereupon become forfeited to the United States."

2d clause.

"And upon the sale hereinafter provided for, shall vest in the United States or in the purchasers at such sale, in fee simple, free and discharged from all prior liens, encumbrances, right, title, and claim whatsoever."

The 7th section, as amended by the Act of February 6, 1863, [Footnote 3] required the board of tax commissioners in case the taxes charged on the lands should not be paid agreeably to the provisions of the 3d section, to advertise the property for sale and to sell the same to the highest bidder for a sum not less than the taxes, penalty, and costs and ten percent per annum interest on the tax. And it also authorized the commissioners,

Page 76 U. S. 329

in all cases where the owner of the property should not, on or before the day of sale, appear in person before them and pay the amount of the tax, with ten percent interest thereon and cost of advertising, or request the property to be struck off to a purchaser for a less sum than two-thirds of the assessed value thereof, to bid off the same for the United States, at a sum not exceeding two-thirds of its assessed value, unless some person should bid a larger sum, and in that case it declared that the property should be struck off to the highest bidder, who, upon payment of the purchase money, should be entitled to receive from the commissioners their certificate of sale, which was thereby required to be received as prima facie evidence of the regularity and validity of the sale, and of the title of the purchaser under the same, in all courts and places, with a proviso that the certificate should only be affected as evidence of the regularity and validity of the sale, by establishing the fact that the property was not subject to taxes or that the taxes had been paid previous to sale, or that the property had been redeemed according to the provisions of the act. Also, by a proviso to this section, the owner of the property or any loyal person having any valid lien upon or interest in the same might, within sixty days after the sale, appear in person before the board of tax commissioners and, if a citizen, upon taking an oath to support the Constitution and paying the amount of the tax and penalty, with interest thereon, from the date when the state went into rebellion, at the rate of fifteen percent, together with the expenses of the sale and subsequent proceedings &c., redeem the same; and, if the owner were a minor, a nonresident alien, a loyal citizen beyond seas, a person of unsound mind, or under legal disability, the period of two years after the sale was allowed for redemption.

Under this Act of the 7th of June, 1862 -- the second of the acts above mentioned -- a tax was assessed upon a tract of land situate in Alexandria County, Virginia, of which one B. W. Hunter was then owner for life, the property in remainder being in his son, and default having been made in payment, the land was advertised for sale. After advertisement,

Page 76 U. S. 330

but before sale, the amount of the tax, expenses, penalties, and costs (the whole being within $100), was tendered by a tenant, in occupation of about half of the premises, to the commissioners appointed for the collection of taxes under the act, who refused to receive the money upon the ground that the tender was not made by the owner of the land in person. The land was then, January 11, 1864, sold, and one Chittenden became the purchaser and received a certificate from the commissioners reciting the sale and his purchase for $8,000. He thereupon leased the property to one Bennett, who went into possession. After the close of the war, Hunter, the son, who had served as an officer in the rebel army but against whose property no proceedings for confiscation had been instituted, and whose estate in remainder had now become absolute, brought suit in one of the state courts of Virginia to recover possession of the land. No question was made of his right to recover if his title was not divested by the sale for taxes. The court in which the suit was brought gave judgment in his favor, and the judgment being affirmed by the supreme court of appeals of the commonwealth, the other side brought the case here for review.

The case, as this Court considered it, required the consideration and determination of one point only -- namely whether the commissioners under the act could make a valid sale for taxes notwithstanding the previous tender by the tenant of half the premises of the amount due. Other important and interesting questions were argued at the bar, but under the view taken of the case by this Court, they need not be stated.

Page 76 U. S. 333

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