Nos. 1057, 1055, 1056, 1058, 1142, 1217, 1216, 23.

135 U.S. 662 (1890)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 19, 1890.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Daniel H. Chamberlain and Mr. William L. Royall for plaintiffs in error.

Mr. R.A. Ayers, Attorney General of the State of Virginia, and Mr. J. Randolph Tucker for defendant in error.

Mr. Daniel H. Chamberlain and Mr. William L. Royall for plaintiff in error.

Mr. R.A. Ayers, Attorney General of the State of Virginia and Mr. J. Randolph Tucker for defendant in error.

Mr. Daniel H. Chamberlain and Mr. William L. Royall for plaintiff in error.

Mr. R.A. Ayers, Attorney General of the State of Virginia, and Mr. J. Randolph Tucker for defendant in error.

Mr. Daniel H. Chamberlain and Mr. William L. Royall, for plaintiff in error.

Mr. R.A. Ayers, Attorney General of the State of Virginia, and Mr. J. Randolph Tucker for defendant in error.

Mr. William L. Royall for plaintiff in error.

Mr. R.A. Ayers, Attorney General of the State of Virginia, and Mr. J. Randolph Tucker for defendant in error.

Mr. William L. Royall for plaintiff in error.

Mr. R.A. Ayers, Attorney General of the State of Virginia, and Mr. J. Randolph Tucker for defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, continuing, delivered the opinion of the court in these cases.

The question is presented to us whether the acts of assembly of the State of Virginia which required the production of the bond in order to establish the genuineness of the coupons and prohibiting expert testimony to prove the said coupons, are or are not repugnant to the Constitution of the United States. On this subject we think there can be little doubt. It is well settled by the adjudications of this court, that the obligation of a contract is impaired, in the sense of the Constitution, by any act which prevents its enforcement it, or which materially abridges the remedy for enforcing it, which existed at the time it was contracted, and does not supply an alternative remedy equally adequate and efficacious. Bronson v. Kinzie, 1 How. 311; Woodruff v. Trapnall, 10 How. 190; Furman v. Nichol, 8 Wall. 44; Walker v. Whitehead, 16 Wall. 314; Von Hoffman v. Quincy, 4 Wall. 535; Tennessee v. Sneed, 96 U.S. 69; Memphis v. United States, 97 U.S. 293; Memphis v. Brown, 97 U.S. 300; Howard v. Bugbee, 24 How. 461.

We have no hesitation in saying that the duty imposed upon the taxpayer of producing the bond from which the coupons tendered by him were cut, at the time of offering the same in evidence in court, was an unreasonable condition, in many cases impossible to be performed. If enforced it would have the effect of rendering valueless all coupons which have been separated from the bonds to which they were attached, and have been sold in the open market. It would deprive them of their negotiable character. It would make them fixed appendages to the bond itself. It would be directly contrary to the meaning and intent of the act of 1871 and the corresponding act of 1879. It would be so onerous and impracticable as not only to affect, but virtually destroy, the value of the instruments in the hands of the holder who had purchased them. We think that the requirement was unconstitutional.

We also think that the prohibition of expert testimony in establishing the genuineness of coupons was in like manner unconstitutional. In the case of coupons made by impressions from metallic plates, (as these were,) no other mode of proving their genuineness is practicable; and that mode of proof is as satisfactory as the proof of handwriting by a witness acquainted with the writing of the party whose signature it purports to be. One who is expert in the inspection and examination of bank notes, engraved bonds and other instruments of that character, is able to detect almost at a glance whether an instrument is genuine or spurious, provided he has an acquaintance with the class of instruments to which his attention is directed. It is the kind of evidence resorted to in proving the genuineness of bank notes; it is the kind of evidence naturally resorted to to prove the genuineness of coupons and other instruments of that character. To prohibit it is to take from the holder of such instruments the only feasible means he has in his power to establish their validity.

In addition to these objections to the proceedings, we question very much whether the act of May 12, 1887, which authorizes and requires a suit to be brought against the taxpayer who tenders payment in coupons, as well as the other acts which require their rejection, are not themselves laws impairing the obligation of the contract. They make no discrimination between genuine and spurious coupons. A bank which should refuse to receive its bills in payment of a note due from one of its customers, but should sue him on his note, and leave him to establish the genuineness of the bills by suit against the bank, would not be regarded with much favor in a business community. It is the duty of its cashier or receiving teller to judge of the genuineness of the bills offered, and to refuse them as spurious on his peril, or rather, on the peril of the bank itself. So, in regard to these coupons, instead of relegating the taxpayer to a course of litigation, the officers of the State charged with the duty of collecting the taxes should themselves decide on the genuineness of the coupons offered. Penalties for knowingly offering spurious coupons, or using them in any way, for sale or otherwise, would probably be as effective in preventing their circulation as like penalties are in suppressing counterfeit bank bills, and other negotiable instruments.

In the case of Bryan v. The State of Virginia, the coupons that were tendered for the payment of the tax sued for purported to have been cut from bonds issued under the act of March 30, 1871, and the same obstacles to the proof of their genuineness were interposed as in the case of McGahey, by requiring the production of the bonds from which the coupons were cut, and by excluding expert testimony. The same also is true of the proceedings in the case of Cooper v. The State of Virginia.

We are of opinion, therefore, that

The judgments in these three cases must be reversed, and the records severally remanded, for the purpose of such proceedings as may be required in due course of law, according to this opinion.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY continued, delivering the opinion of the court:

The point made in this case is, that the costs included in the judgment on which the present suit was brought were not a debt due to the State of Virginia in her own right, but were due to the officers in whose favor they were taxed and whose services they were to compensate. We think that this point is untenable. The costs were recovered by the State of Virginia in the original action, to compensate her for the fees which she had to pay to the officers for their services. The demand of the officers for their costs was a demand against the State of Virginia, and not against the defendant; and by reason of this demand against her, she was entitled to recover the amount against the defendant; so that in no legal sense can it be said that the costs included in the judgment belonged to the officers and not to the State. They were recovered by her in form, and they belonged to her, when recovered, in substance. We are of opinion, therefore, that

This judgment must also be reversed, and the record remanded for the purpose of such proceedings as may be required in due course of law, in accordance with this opinion.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, continuing, delivered the opinion of the court in this case.

It is manifest from the terms of the act of 1871, as well as that of 1879, under which tax-receivable coupons were authorized to be and were issued, that said coupons were intended to circulate from hand to hand, being expressly made payable to bearer, and being made receivable for taxes, debts, dues and demands due to the State. Any undue restraint upon the free negotiability of these instruments, therefore, would be a violation of the clear understanding and agreement of the parties. That the license required by the 65th section of the tax act of March 15, 1884, as amended by the act of May 23, 1887, was a very material interference with such negotiability, is most manifest. If sustained as a valid act of legislation, and carried into effect, it would prevent the negotiation of such coupons by any holder thereof. The enormous license fee of one thousand dollars in towns of more than ten thousand inhabitants and of five hundred dollars in other counties and towns, with the exception of twenty per cent of the face value on every coupon sold, was absolutely prohibitory in its effect. A material quality of the coupons — their negotiability — was thereby destroyed. The point cannot be made any clearer by argument than it appears by the mere statement of it. This follows whether the law is construed as applicable to the sale by a coupon-holder of his own coupons, or to the sale or passing by any person of coupons for another. An owner of coupons residing in New York or London, under the operation of the law, if the coupons were not paid by the State when they became due, would be obliged to go in person to Virginia in order to dispose of them to those who might be able and willing to use them in the payment of taxes.

The judgment in this case must also be reversed, and the record remanded for the purpose of such proceedings to be had as law and justice may require in accordance with this opinion.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, continuing delivered the opinion of the court.

The passage of a new statute of limitations, giving a shorter time for the bringing of actions than existed before, even as applied to actions which had accrued, does not necessarily affect the remedy to such an extent as to impair the obligation of the contract within the meaning of the Constitution, provided a reasonable time is given for the bringing of such actions. This subject has been considered in a number of cases by this court, particularly in Terry v. Anderson, 95 U.S. 628, 632, and Koshkonong v. Burton, 104 U.S. 668, 675, where the prior cases are referred to. In Terry v. Anderson, Chief Justice Waite, speaking for the court, said: "This court has often decided that statutes of limitation affecting existing rights are not unconstitutional, if a reasonable time is given for the commencement of an action before the bar takes effect. Hawkins v. Barney, 5 Pet. 457; Jackson v. Lamphire, 3 Pet. 280; Sohn v. Waterson, 17 Wall. 596; Christmas v. Russell, 5 Wall. 290; Sturges v. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. 122. It is difficult to see why, if the legislature may prescribe a limitation where none existed before, it may not change one which has already been established. The parties to a contract have no more a vested interest in a particular limitation which has been fixed than they have in an unrestricted right to sue... . In all such cases the question is one of reasonableness, and we have, therefore, only to consider whether the time allowed in this statute is, under all the circumstances, reasonable. Of that the legislature is primarily the judge; and we cannot overrule the decision of that department of the government unless a palpable error has been committed."

The court in that case held that the period of nine months and seventeen days given to sue upon a cause of action which had already been running nearly four years, was not unconstitutional. The liability in question was that of a stockholder under an act of incorporation for the ultimate redemption of the bills of a bank which had become insolvent by the disaster of the civil war. The legislature of Georgia, on the 16th of March, 1869, passed a statute requiring all actions against stockholders in such cases to be brought by or before the 1st of January, 1870.

In the case of Koshkonong v. Burton, the suit was brought upon bonds of the town of Koshkonong issued January 1, 1857, with interest coupons attached. The coupons matured at different dates from 1858 to 1877. The action was brought on the 12th of May, 1880, and the question was whether the action as to the coupons maturing more than six years before the commencement of the suit was barred by the statute of limitations of Wisconsin. In March, 1872, an act was passed to limit the time for the commencement of actions against towns, counties, cities and villages, on demands payable to bearer. It provided that no action brought to recover money on any bond, coupon, interest warrant, agreement or promise in writing made by any town, county, city or village, or upon any instalment of the principal or interest thereof, shall be maintained unless the action be commenced within six years from the time when such money has or shall become due, when the same has been made payable to bearer or to some person or bearer, or to the order of some person, or to some person or his order; provided, that any such action may be brought within one year after this act shall take effect. This court, speaking by Mr. Justice Harlan, said: "It was undoubtedly within the Constitutional power of the legislature to require, as to existing causes of action, that suits for their enforcement should be barred unless brought within a period less than that prescribed at the time the contract was made or the liability incurred from which the cause of action arose. The exertion of this power is, of course, subject to the fundamental condition that a reasonable time, taking all the circumstances into consideration, be given by the new law for the commencement of an action before the bar takes effect. Whether the first proviso in the act of 1872, as to some causes of action, especially in its application to citizens of other States holding negotiable municipal securities, is, or not, in violation of that condition, is a question of too much practical importance and delicacy to justify us in considering it unless its determination be essential to the disposition of the case in hand; and we think it is not." The case was decided without determining the question referred to.

A question of the same nature frequently arises upon statutes which require the registry of conveyances and other instruments within a limited period prescribed, and making them void, either absolutely or in their operation as against third persons, if not recorded within such time. Such laws, as applied to conveyances and other instruments in existence at the time of their passage, are, of course, retrospective in their character, and may operate very oppressively if a reasonable time be not given for the registry required. This subject was discussed in the case of Vance v. Vance, 108 U.S. 514, Mr. Justice Miller delivering the opinion of the court, where the prior cases were adverted to and commented upon. The same rule applies in those cases as in reference to statutes of limitation, namely, that the time given for the act to be done must be a reasonable time, otherwise it would be unconstitutional and void.

It is evident from this statement of the question that no one rule as to the length of time which will be deemed reasonable can be laid down for the government of all cases alike. Different circumstances will often require a different rule. What would be reasonable in one class of cases would be entirely unreasonable in another.

It is necessary, therefore, to look at the nature and circumstances of the case before us, and of the class of cases to which it belongs. The primary obligation of the State with regard to the coupons attached to the bonds issued under the act of 1871 was to pay them when they became due; but if they were not paid at maturity the alternative right was given to the holder of them to use them in the payment of taxes, debts, dues and demands due to the State. The very nature of the case shows that such an application of the coupons could not be made immediately or in any very short period of time. If all the bonds were of the denomination of one thousand dollars each, it would require twenty thousand of them to make up the funded debt of twenty millions of dollars. These twenty thousand bonds would be likely to be scattered and dispersed through many States and countries, and it would be impracticable for the holders of them to use the coupons which the State should fail to pay in cash, in the alternative manner stipulated for in the contract, unless they had a reasonable time to dispose of them to taxpayers. No limitation of time was fixed by the act within which the coupons should be presented or tendered in payment of taxes or other demands. The presumption would naturally be that they could be used within an indefinite period, like bank bills. Under this condition of things, a statute of limitations giving to the holders thereof but a single year for the presentation in payment of taxes of the coupons then in their possession, perhaps never severed from the bonds to which they were attached, and comprising all the coupons which had been originally attached thereto, seems, even at first blush, to be unreasonable and oppressive. Probably not one-tenth, if even so large a proportion, of the bondholders were taxpayers of the State of Virginia. The only way in which they could, within the year prescribed, utilize their coupons, the accumulation perhaps of years, would be to sell and dispose of them to the taxpayers. How this could be done, especially in view of the onerous laws which were passed with regard to the sale of coupons in the State, it is difficult to see. Under all the circumstances of the case, and the peculiar condition of the securities in question, we are compelled to say that in our opinion the law is an unreasonable law and that it does materially impair the obligation of the contract.

We have spoken of the act as limiting, indifferently, the time of tendering the coupons, and the time of commencing proceedings to ascertain their genuineness. Its terms relate only to the latter; and as this proceeding cannot be instituted until the coupons have been tendered, the effect is, to make a tender necessary before the expiration of one year, which can often be done only within a few days, or even hours; since the taxes may become due in that short period, and not become due again until a year afterwards. This puts the unconstitutionality of the act beyond question.

Without further discussion of the subject, we conclude that

The judgment of the Circuit Court must be reversed, and the same is reversed accordingly, and the cause remanded for the purpose of such proceedings as may be required by law and justice in conformity with this opinion.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, continuing, delivered the opinion of the court.

The law under which the treasurer justified his action in refusing to receive the coupons tendered by the plaintiff is set forth in the declaration with sufficient accuracy and fulness for the disposal of the case, except that it should be added that the license fee to be deposited with the treasurer was required to be in lawful money of the United States as a condition precedent to the granting of the license.

We are of opinion that the requirement that the license fee shall be paid in lawful money of the United States does not, as contended, impair the obligation of the contract made by the State with the holders of the coupons referred to. Licenses for the sale of intoxicating liquors are not only imposed for the purpose of raising revenue, but also for the purpose of regulating the traffic and consumption of these articles, and hence the State may impose such conditions for conducting said traffic as it may deem most for the public good. Instead of a license fee of $125 it might have imposed a license fee of $250, or any other amount, or it might have prohibited the sale of intoxicating liquors altogether, as is admitted by the counsel for the plaintiff in their brief. They concede that the State might, in her discretion, absolutely abolish the sale of spirituous liquors, or prescribe on what terms they shall be sold. In this view, there does not seem to be any violation of the obligation of the State in requiring the tax which is imposed to be paid in any manner whatever — in gold, in silver, in bank notes or in diamonds. The manner of payment is part of the condition of the license intended as a regulation of the traffic. It would be very different if the business sought to be followed was one of the ordinary pursuits of life, in which all persons are entitled to engage. License taxes imposed upon such pursuits and professions are imposed purely for the purpose of revenue, and not for the purpose of regulating the traffic or the pursuit. For these considerations we are clearly of opinion that

The judgment of the Circuit Court was right, and it is, therefore, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, continuing, delivered the opinion of the court.

The Court of Appeals placed their judgment upon two distinct grounds. In the first place, they reviewed the former judgments of that court which had sustained the act of March 30, 1871, as a valid and constitutional enactment and binding upon the State as a contract with the bond and coupon holders under the same. The court were of opinion that these decisions were based upon a mistaken assumption that the State had received a consideration for the issuing of the bonds created by the act aforesaid. They argued and attempted to show that the State had not received any consideration whatever, but that the issuing of the bonds under the act of 1871 was a mere gratuity on the part of the State, and was not binding upon it so as to prevent the legislature from abrogating the conditions of that act. We have already indicated our views with regard to this position taken by the Supreme Court of Appeals, and have referred to the decisions made by this court sustaining the validity of the act of 1871, which decisions of this court we regard as binding upon us.

The other ground on which the Court of Appeals placed its decision was, that the act of 1871, as applied to the moneys due and payable to the "literary fund," or fund for the maintenance of public free schools, was contrary to the constitution of the State, adopted in 1869. The 7th and 8th sections of the eighth article of that constitution declare as follows:

"SEC. 7. The General Assembly shall set apart, as a permanent and perpetual literary fund the present literary funds of the State, the proceeds of all public lands donated by Congress for public school purposes, of all escheated property, of all waste and unappropriated lands, of all property accruing to the State by forfeitures, and all fines collected for offences committed against the State, and such other sums as the General Assembly may appropriate.

"SEC. 8. The General Assembly shall apply the annual interest on the literary fund, the capitation tax provided for by this constitution for public free school purposes, and an annual tax upon the property of the State of not less than one mill nor more than five mills on the dollar, for the equal benefit of all the people of the State... ." 2 Constitution and Charters, 1968.

The court, in its opinion, held that in view of these constitutional provisions the legislature had no power to declare or contract, that the moneys due to the literary fund might be paid in coupons attached to the bonds authorized by the act of 1871; and that such a payment would be repugnant to the very nature of the fund. It might well be added, that coupons thus paid into the fund would be of no value whatever to it, for as soon as paid into the treasury they would become valueless as if cancelled and destroyed, unless some provision were made for their reissue, and the putting of them into renewed circulation. This would be opposed to the whole tenor of the act, would be unjust to the coupon holders themselves, and would probably be contrary to the acts of Congress in reference to the creation of paper currency. We think that the position of the Court of Appeals in this case is well taken, that coupons could not be made receivable as a portion of the literary fund; and that, if they could not be received as a part of the fund, they could not properly be made receivable for the taxes laid for the purpose of maintaining said fund. For several years after the constitution was adopted, and after the law of 1871 had been passed, the taxes for the benefit of free schools were mingled in the assessment and collection of taxes, and in the treasury when received, with the other taxes and funds raised for the support of the state government. As long as this state of things continued the collecting officers could not object to receiving coupons in payment of taxes, because the share due to the school fund could easily be paid from the treasury, to the credit of that fund, out of the lawful moneys received. But by the tax act of March 15, 1884, it was provided that all taxes assessed on property, real or personal, by that act, and dedicated by it to the maintenance of the public free schools of the State, should be paid and collected only in the lawful money of the United States, and should be paid into the treasury to the credit of the free school fund, and should be used for no other purpose whatsoever, and to this end the auditor of public accounts should have the books of the commissioner of the revenue prepared with reference to the separate assessment and collection of said school tax, and the several treasurers of the Commonwealth should have the tax bills in their counties and corporations so made out as to specify the amount of the tax due from each taxpayer to the public free school fund, including the capitation taxes of whatever kind or nature, and should keep said capitation tax and school tax separate and distinct from all other taxes or revenues so collected by him, and forward the same, thus separate and distinct, to the auditor of public accounts, which should be kept separate and distinct by him from all other taxes or revenues until paid to the public free schools. Since the passage of this act, and in pursuance thereof, the taxes and other revenues raised for the purpose of maintaining public schools, and belonging under the Constitution to the literary fund, have been kept separate and distinct from the other taxes raised for the general support of the state government. This and the practice when the case of Vashon v. Greenhow arose, and in our judgment the law requiring the school tax to be paid in lawful money of the United States was a valid law, notwithstanding the provisions of the act of 1871; and that it was sustained by the sections of the Constitution referred to, which antedate the law of 1871, and override any provisions therein which are repugnant thereto.

In Paup v. Drew, 10 How. 218, a decision was made by this court in a case not very different in principle from the one now under consideration. It had been decided in Woodruff v. Trapnall, 10 How. 190, at about the same time, that the law of Arkansas which chartered the Bank of the State of Arkansas, (the whole capital of which belonged to the State,) and provided that the bills and notes of said institution should be received in all payments of debts due to the State, was valid and irrepealable, and that, although this provision was subsequently in terms repealed, the notes of the bank which were in circulation at the time of the repeal were not affected by it; and that the undertaking of the State to receive the notes of the bank constituted a contract between the State and the holders of these notes which the State was not at liberty to break or impair, although notes issued by the bank after the repeal were not within the contract and might be refused. After this decision the case of Paup v. Drew came up, in which it was held that, although the notes of the bank were receivable in payment of all debts due to the State in its own right, and could not be refused, yet where the State sold lands which were held by it in trust for the benefit of a seminary, and the terms of the sale were that the debtor should pay in specie or its equivalent, such debtor was not at liberty to tender the notes of the bank in payment. The question arose in this way: Congress in 1827 had passed an act "Concerning a seminary of learning in the Territory of Arkansas," by which two entire townships of land were directed to be set aside and reserved from sale, out of the public lands within the said territory, for the use and support of a university within the said territory. In 1836, Congress passed another act entitled "An act supplementary to the act entitled `An act for the admission of the State of Arkansas into the Union, and to provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States within the same, and for other purposes,'" by which last act the lands so reserved for the use and support of a university were vested in the State of Arkansas. On the 28th of December, 1840, the legislature of Arkansas passed an act entitled "An act to authorize the governor to dispose of the seminary lands;" and in 1842 the then governor of the State sold to John W. Paup the right to enter and locate 640 acres of said land, and received from him therefor bonds payable at different dates in specie or its equivalent. In 1847 the governor of the State brought a suit upon these bonds, and the defendants brought into court the sum of $6050 in notes of the Bank of the State of Arkansas, and pleaded a tender of the same in discharge of the debt. The plaintiff demurred on the ground that the proceeds of the bonds were part of a trust fund committed to the State by Congress for special purposes, over which the State had no power except to collect and disburse the same in pursuance of the objects of the grant, and the State had no power to apply said funds to the payment of ordinary liabilities, and was not bound to accept in payment of such bonds any depreciated bills, bank paper, or issues, even though she might be ultimately liable to redeem them. This demurrer was sustained and judgment given that the fund was a trust fund held by the State of Arkansas for the purposes to which it was devoted, and therefore the State could not properly contract to receive other than lawful money for property disposed of belonging to said fund.

We think that the principle of this case sustains the decision of the Court of Appeals of Virginia in the case now under consideration, and the judgment of that court is


It may be argued that the principle involved in the last case is equally applicable to all taxes raised for the support of the state government, inasmuch as the funds necessary for that purpose, as well as those raised for the purpose of maintaining public free schools, are required to be paid in cash. But there is this difference, that the tax for school purposes is set apart for that specific use, under the express requirement of the constitution, whilst the general tax for carrying on the government is, or should be, adequate to meet not only the actual expenses of the government itself, but also the outstanding debts and obligations that may be due and payable during the fiscal year, of which the coupons are themselves a part. If the tender of tax-receiving coupons to any considerable amount is apprehended, the rate of taxation should be raised so as to produce a sufficient surplus over and above such coupons to meet the expenses of the government. If the influx of coupons should be so uncertain that no safe calculation could be made on the subject, an arrangement could probably be made with the coupon holders, for limiting the proportion of tax which would be received in coupons. It is certainly to be wished that some arrangement may be adopted which will be satisfactory to all the parties concerned, and relieve the courts as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia, whose name and history recall so many interesting associations, from all further exhibitions of a controversy that has become a vexation and a regret.


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