BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, ETC. v. LUCAS


93 U.S. 108 (____)

BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS OF TIPPECANOE COUNTY v. LUCAS, TREASURER.

Supreme Court of United States.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Z. Baird, for the plaintiff in error.

Mr. H.W. Chase and Mr. J.R. Coffroth for the defendant in error.


MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after making the foregoing statement of the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

It is objected, in limine, that this court has no jurisdiction of the cause, on the alleged ground that the judgment rendered is not a final judgment. The order of the Circuit Court, granting a preliminary injunction, was, it is true, interlocutory, and, if the judgment of the Supreme Court of the State had been limited to a simple reversal, the objection would have been tenable. The cause would then have remained in the Circuit Court for further proceedings. But the direction to that court, accompanying the reversal of its order to dismiss the complaint, made a final disposition of the cause. With the entry of that judgment the cause was at an end. With the peculiarities of the practice of the Indiana courts we have nothing to do. If, upon an appeal from an interlocutory order, a final disposition of the merits of a cause can be made in that State, it is no concern of ours. If, by any direction, the entire cause is, in fact, determined, the decision, when reduced to form and entered in the records of the court, constitutes a final judgment, subject in a proper case to our review, whatever may be its technical designation. The course adopted in this case was evidently pursued, from the fact that the whole merits of the controversy had been considered on the motion for the preliminary injunction. The application was founded upon the alleged invalidity of the act of 1872; no other matter was discussed, and all objections of form in the proceeding were waived, that the validity of the act might be considered and determined. Being determined against the view advanced by the plaintiffs, the cause, so far as the State courts were concerned, was practically at an end.

In this court, also, the validity of the act of 1872 is the sole question presented. The act is assailed here, as in the court below, as authorizing an invasion of the right of private property, and as impairing the obligation of an executed contract. Were the transaction one between the State and a private individual, the invalidity of the act would not be a matter of serious doubt. Private property cannot be taken from individuals by the State, except for public purposes, and then only upon compensation, or by way of taxation; and any enactments to that end would be regarded as an illegitimate and unwarranted exercise of legislative power. And any attempt by the legislature to take private property from its grantee, and restore it to its grantor, would be in conflict with the constitutional inhibition against impairing the obligation of contracts.

But between the State and municipal corporations, such as cities, counties, and towns, the relation is different from that between the State and the individual. Municipal corporations are mere instrumentalities of the State, for the convenient administration of government; and their powers may be qualified, enlarged, or withdrawn, at the pleasure of the legislature. Their tenure of property, derived from the State for specific public purposes, or obtained for such purposes through means which the State alone can authorize, — that is, taxation, — is so far subject to the control of the legislature, that the property may be applied to other public uses of the municipality than those originally designated. This follows from the nature of such bodies, and the dependent character of their existence. But property, derived by them from other sources, is often held, by the terms of its grant, for special uses, from which it cannot be diverted by the legislature. In such cases, the property is protected by all the guards against legislative interference possessed by individuals and private corporations for their property. And there would seem to be reasons equally cogent, in abstract justice, against a diversion by the legislature from the purposes of a municipality of property raised for its use by taxation from its inhabitants. There are probably provisions in the constitutions of the several States which would prevent any marked diversion in that way; but whether a contract between the State and the municipality, within the protection of the Federal Constitution, is implied in such cases, that the property acquired shall not be diverted from the purposes of the municipality and appropriated to other uses, is a question we are not now called upon to determine. In the present case, it is not necessary for us to go over the ground, so ably explored by the judges of the Supreme Court of Indiana, and attempt to mark the line within which the State may control and dispose of property held by a municipal corporation, and beyond which its action is subject to the same restraints as are its dealings with the property of individuals. It is enough that the present case is free from difficulty. Here there is no attempted diversion of the property from the purpose for which it was acquired: that purpose has been accomplished. The money having been obtained by compulsory contribution from the inhabitants, the legislature could undoubtedly have directed its restitution to them at any time before the subscription was made. If the road had been previously built, and the aid contemplated had thus become unnecessary, such restitution would have been proper and just. Numerous cases might be named where the return of taxes collected would be the only just proceeding to be taken. Money raised for a special emergency may not be required by the emergency ceasing.

The changed condition of the property collected in this case, by its use in paying for the stock subscribed, could not affect the power of the State: it only made the subsequent distribution of the property to the tax-payers a matter of greater difficulty. Nor could the fact, that the commissioners of the county took the certificate in their name for the stock subscribed, remove the property from the control of the State. The commissioners took the stock, not to hold as an investment which was to yield an annual revenue to the county, but to aid in the construction of a work in which the public were interested, — a railroad through the county. As justly observed by counsel, the management of the affairs of a railroad company is no part of the proper business of a county; and, when the purpose designed by the subscription was accomplished, it was sound policy to relieve the county officers from any participation in such management. Of the power of the State to direct a restitution to tax-payers of a county, or other municipal corporation, of property exacted from them by taxation, into whatever form the property may be changed, so long as it remains in possession of the municipality, we have no doubt. The exercise of the power infringes upon no provision of the Federal Constitution. Further than this, it is not necessary for us to go for the disposition of this case.

Judgment affirmed.


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