MR. JUSTICE SHIRAS delivered the opinion of the court.
This is the case of a so-called transfer tax imposed under the laws of the State of New York. The various contentions of the plaintiffs in error, attacking the validity of the tax, were overruled by the courts of the State, and the cause is now before us on the general proposition that by the proceedings the plaintiffs in error, or those whom they represent as trustees and guardians, have been deprived of the equal protection of the laws of the State of New York, their privileges and immunities as citizens of the United States have been abridged, and their property taken without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and likewise, as to a portion of the property affected, in violation of section 10 of article 1 of the Constitution of the United States.
The first question presented arises out of subdivision 5 of section 220 of the tax law of the State of New York, which reads as follows:
"5. Whenever any person, or corporation, shall exercise a power of appointment, derived from any disposition of property, made either before or after the passage of this act, such appointment, when made, shall be deemed a transfer, taxable, under the provisions of this act, in the same manner as though the property, to which such appointment relates, belonged absolutely to the donee of such power, and had been bequeathed, or devised, by such donee by will; and whenever any person, or corporation, possessing such a power of appointment, so derived, shall omit, or fail, to exercise the same within the time provided therefor, in whole or in part, a transfer, taxable under the provisions of this act, shall be deemed to take place to the extent of such omissions, or failure, in the same manner as
This enactment became a law on April 16, 1897. David Dows, Senior, died March 30, 1890, leaving a will containing a power of appointment to his son, David Dows, Junior, which will was duly admitted to probate by the Surrogate's Court on April 14, 1890. David Dows, Junior, died on January 13, 1899, leaving a will, in which he exercised the power of appointment given him in the will of his father, and apportioned the property, which was the subject of the power, among his three sons, who are represented in this litigation by the plaintiff in error.
It is claimed that, under the law of the State of New York as it stood at the time of his death, in 1890, David Dows, Senior, had a legal right to transfer, by will, his property or any interest therein, to his grandchildren, without any diminution, or impairment, then imposed by the law of the State upon the exercise of that right; that his said grandchildren acquired vested rights in the property so transferred, and that the subsequent law, whose terms have been above transcribed, operates to diminish and impair those vested rights. In other words, it is claimed that it is not competent for the State, by a subsequent enactment, to exact a price or charge for a privilege lawfully exercised in 1890, and to thus take from the grandchildren a portion of the very property the full right to which had vested in them many years before.
We here meet, in the first place, the question of the construction of the will of David Dows, Senior. Under and by virtue of that will, did the property, whose transfer is taxed, pass to and become vested in the grandchildren, or did the property not become vested in them until and by virtue of the will of David Dows, Junior, exercising the power of appointment? The answer to be given to this question must, of course, be that furnished us by the Court of Appeals in this case. Matter of Dows, 167 N.Y. 227:
"Whatever be the technical source of title of a grantee under
It will be perceived that, in putting this construction upon the will of David Dows, Senior, the Court of Appeals not merely construed the words of the will but, by implication, applied to the case the provisions of the subdivision 5 of section 220, under which the transfer tax in question was imposed, and thus construed that tax law and affirmed its validity.
While it is settled law that this court will follow the construction put by the state courts upon wills devising property situated within the State, and while it is also true that we adopt the construction of its own statutes by the state courts, a question may remain whether the statute, as so construed, imports a violation of any of the rights secured by applicable provisions of the Constitution of the United States. And such is the contention here.
This court has no authority to revise the statutes of New York upon any grounds of justice, policy or consistency to its own constitution. Such questions are concluded by the decision of the legislative and judicial authorities of the State.
In Carpenter v. Pennsylvania, 17 How. 456, the question arose as to the validity, in its Federal aspect, of a law of the State of Pennsylvania imposing an inheritance tax on personal
"The validity of the act, as affecting successions to open after its enactment, is not contested; nor is the authority of the State to levy taxes upon personal property belonging to its citizens, but situated beyond its limits, denied. But the complaint is that the application of the act to a succession already in the course of settlement, and which had been appropriated by the last will of decedent, involved an arbitrary change of the existing laws of inheritance to the extent of this tax, in the sequestration of that amount for the uses of the State; that the rights of the residuary legatees were vested at the death of the testator, and from that time those persons were non-residents, and the property taxed was also beyond the State; and that the State has employed its power over the executor and the property within its borders, to accomplish a measure of wrong and injustice; that the act contains the imposition of a forfeiture or penalty, and is ex post facto.
"It is, in some sense, true that the rights of donees under a will are vested at the death of the testator; and that the acts of administration which follow are conservatory means, directed by the State to ascertain those rights, and to accomplish an effective translation of the dominion of the decedent to the objects of his bounty; and the legislation adopted with any other aim than this would justify criticism, and perhaps censure.
"The act of 1860, in enlarging the operation of the act of 1826, and by extending the language of that act beyond its legal import, is retrospective in its form; but its practical agency is to subject to assessment property liable to taxation, to answer an existing exigency of the State, and to be collected in the course of future administration; and the language retrospective is of no importance, except to describe the property to be included in the assessment. And as the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has well said, `in establishing its peculiar interpretation, it (the legislature) has only done indirectly what it was competent to do directly.' But if the act of 1850 involved a change in the law of succession, and could be regarded as a civil regulation for the division of the estates of unmarried persons having no lineal heirs, and not as a fiscal imposition, this court could not pronounce it to be an ex post facto law within the tenth section of the nineteenth article of the Constitution. The debates in the Federal convention upon the Constitution show that the terms `ex post facto laws, were understood in a restricted sense, relating to criminal cases only, and that the description of Blackstone of such laws was referred to for their meaning. 3 Mad. Pap. 1399, 1450, 1579.) This signification was adopted in this court shortly after its organization, in opinions
It is true that this case was decided before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, but we think it correctly defines the limits of jurisdiction between the state and Federal governments in respect to the control of the estates of decedents, both as they were regarded before and have been regarded since the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. It has never been held that it was the purpose or function of that amendment to change the systems and policies of the States in regard to the devolution of estates, or to the extent of the taxing power over them.
In In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, it was stated by the present Chief Justice that —
"The Fourteenth Amendment did not radically change the whole theory of the relations of the state and Federal governments to each other, and of both governments to the people. The same person may be at the same time a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a State. Protection to life, liberty, and property rests primarily with the States, and the amendment furnishes an additional guaranty against any encroachment by the States upon those fundamental rights which belong to citizenship, and which the state governments were created to secure. The privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, as distinguished from the privileges and immunities of citizens of the States, are indeed protected by it; but those are privileges and immunities arising out of the nature and essential character of the national government, and granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States. United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542; Slaughter Houses Cases, 16 Wall. 36."
It was said in De Vaughn v. Hutchinson, 165 U.S. 566, that "It is a principle firmly established that to the law of the State in which the land is situated we must look for the rules which govern its descent, alienation and transfer, and for the effect and construction of wills and other conveyances."
In Clarke v. Clarke, 186 U.S. 186, the proposition was again announced, as one requiring only to be stated, that the law of
In Magoun v. Illinois Trust Co., 170 U.S. 283, the validity of a law of the State of Illinois imposing a legacy and inheritance tax, the rate progressing by the amount of the beneficial interest acquired, was assailed in the courts of Illinois as being in violation of the constitution of that State, requiring equal and uniform taxation. The state court having decided that the progressive feature did not violate the constitution of that State, the case came to this court upon the contention that the establishment of a progressive rate was a denial both of due process of law and of the equal protection of the laws within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But these contentions were held by this court to be untenable.
See, likewise, Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41, and Plummer v. Coler, 178 U.S. 115, wherein were considered the nature of inheritance tax laws and the extent of the powers of the States and of Congress in imposing and regulating them.
In the light of the principles thus established we are unable to see in this legislation of the State of New York, as construed by its highest court, any infringement of the salutary provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. There are involved no arbitrary or unequal regulations, prescribing different rates of taxation on property or persons in the same condition. The provisions of the law extend alike to all estates that descend or devolve upon the death of those who once owned them. The moneys raised by the taxation are applied to the lawful uses of the State, in which the legatees have the same interests with the other citizens. Nor is it claimed that the amount or rate of the taxation is excessive to the extent of confiscation.
But, it is further urged, that the tax law of the State of New York, section 221, expressly exempts from taxation, or charge, all real estate passing to lineal descendants by descent or devise, and all such descendants so taking title to real estate from ancestors, and it is said that under the interpretation of this law by the courts of the State of New York all property which
It is true that the property described in the sixth paragraph of the will of David Dows, Senior, was real estate, but under the powers conferred in the will of David Dows, Senior, the trustees had converted the real estate and held the proceeds as personal property before the death of David Dows, Junior, and it was this personal property which became vested in the grandchildren under the exercise of the power of appointment. The Court of Appeals held that it was the execution of the power of appointment which subjected grantees under it to the transfer tax. This conclusion is binding upon this court in so far as it involves a construction of the will and of the statute. Nor are we able to perceive that thereby the plaintiffs in error were deprived of any rights under the Federal Constitution. The rule of law laid down by the New York courts is applicable to all alike, and even if the view of the Court of Appeals respecting the question was wrong, it was an error which we have no power to review.
Another objection made to the judgment of the Court of Appeals, affirming the Surrogate's order, is that the tax imposed upon transfers made under a power of appointment is a tax upon property and not on the right of succession, and that, as a portion of the fund was invested in incorporated companies liable to taxation on their own capital, and in certain bonds of the State of New York, and in bonds of the city of New York exempt by statute from taxation, such exemption formed part of the contract under which said securities were purchased, and the tax imposed and the proceedings to enforce it were in violation of section 10 of article 1 of the Constitution of the United States forbidding the States to pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts.
The Court of Appeals overruled the proposition that the
In reaching this conclusion the Court of Appeals cited not only various New York cases but several decisions of this court, the principles of which were thought to be applicable. Magoun v. Illinois Trust Co., 170 U.S. 283; Plummer v. Coler, 178 U.S. 115; Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41; Murdock v. Ward, 178 U.S. 139.
We think it unnecessary to enter upon another discussion of a subject so recently considered in the cases just cited, and that it is sufficient to say that, in our opinion, the Court of Appeals did not err when it held that a transfer or succession tax, not being a direct tax upon property, but a charge upon a privilege exercised or enjoyed under the law of the State, does not, when imposed in cases where the property passing consists of securities exempt by statute, impair the obligation of a contract within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
A further contention is made that the legatees or devisees of the remainders created by the will of David Dows, Junior, are not legally subject to taxation until the precedent estates terminate and the remainders vest in possession.
The Court of Appeals held that the doctrine invoked had no application to the remainders given to the sons of David Dows, Junior; that they are absolute and not subject to be divested or to fail in any contingency whatever; that by statute they are alienable, devisable, descendible, and if the property were real estate, they could be sold on execution against their owners; that by the aid of the table of annuities, upon the faith of which large sums are constantly distributed by the courts, the present value of these remainders is capable of ready
These views of the Court of Appeals must be accepted by us as accurate statements of the law of the State; and though it is claimed in the brief of counsel for the plaintiffs in error that such a construction of the transfer tax law brings it into conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, we are unable to approve such a contention. The subject dealt with is one of state law, expounded by state courts. The laws and the construction put upon them apply equally to all persons in a like situation, and cannot be regarded as conflicting with the provisions of the Federal Constitution. Magoun v. Illinois Trust Co., 170 U.S. 283.
Other contentions made in the brief of counsel for the plaintiffs in error seem, so far as our jurisdiction is concerned, to be phases of those heretofore considered and thereby disposed of.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York affirming the judgment of the Surrogate's Court of New York County is
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN concurred in the result.