178 U.S. 436 (1900), 242, Smith v. Reeves

Docket NºNo. 242
Citation178 U.S. 436, 20 S.Ct. 919, 44 L.Ed. 1140
Party NameSmith v. Reeves
Case DateMay 14, 1900
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 436

178 U.S. 436 (1900)

20 S.Ct. 919, 44 L.Ed. 1140




No. 242

United States Supreme Court

May 14, 1900

Argued April 16, 1900




Within the meaning of the constitutional provisions relating to actions instituted by private persons against a state, this suit, though in form against an officer of the California, is in fact against the state itself.

By § 3669 of the Political Code of California, which provides that any person dissatisfied with the assessment made upon him by the State Board of Equalization, may, after payment and on the conditions named in the act, bring an action against the state treasurer for the recovery of the amount of taxes and percentage so paid to the treasurer, or any part thereof, the state has not consented to be sued except in its own courts.

It was competent for the state to couple with its consent to be sued on account of taxes alleged to have been exacted under illegal assessments made by the state board the condition that the suit be brought in one of its own courts.

A suit brought against a state by one of its citizens is excluded from the judicial power of the United States even when it is one arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the same rule applies to suits of a like character brought by federal corporations against a state without its consent.

The case is stated in the opinion.

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of California by the receivers of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad Company, a corporation created under an act of Congress approved July 27, 1866,

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with authority to construct and maintain a railroad and telegraph line beginning at or near Springfield, Missouri, thence by a specified route to the Pacific Ocean. 14 Stat. 292, c. 278.

The original defendant was J. R. McDonald, as Treasurer of the State of California. He was succeeded in office by Levi Rackliffe, W. S. Green, and Truman Reeves, in the order named.

The relief sought was a judgment against the defendant "as Treasurer of the State of California," for the sum of $2,272.80 with interest thereon from the date of the payment of that sum or any portion thereof to the state treasurer, together with the costs of the action.

Before bringing suit, the receivers of the railroad company gave written notice to the comptroller of the state that they intended to bring an action against the state treasurer to recover from him the amount of the

taxes paid by the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad Company, and by the receiver for it, to the state treasurer as and for taxes assessed against the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad Company in the State of California for the year 1893, by the state board of equalization.

The action was brought under section 3669 of the Political Code of California, which is as follows:

Each corporation, person, or association assessed by the State Board of Equalization must pay to the state treasurer, upon the order of the Comptroller, as other moneys are required to be paid into the treasury, the state and county and city and county taxes each year levied upon the property so assessed to it or him by said board. Any corporation, person, or association dissatisfied with the assessment made by the board, upon the payment of the taxes due upon the assessment complained of, and the five percent added, if to be added, on or before the first Monday in June, and the filing of notice with the Comptroller of an intention to begin an action, may, not later than the first Monday in June, bring an action against the state treasurer for the recovery of the amount of taxes and percentage so paid to the treasurer, or any part thereof, and in the complaint may allege any fact tending to show the illegality of the tax, or of the assessment upon which the taxes are levied, in [20 S.Ct. 920] whole or in part. A copy of the complaint and of the

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summons must be served upon the treasurer within ten days after the complaint has been filed, and the treasurer has thirty days within which to demur or answer. At the time the treasurer demurs or answers, he may demand that the action be tried in the Superior Court of the County of Sacramento. The attorney general must defend the action. The provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure relating to pleadings, proofs, trials, and appeals are applicable to the proceedings herein provided for. If the final judgment be against the treasurer, upon presentation of a certified copy of such judgment to the Comptroller, he shall draw his warrant upon the state treasurer, who must pay to the plaintiff the amount of the taxes so declared to have been illegally collected, and the cost of such action, audited by the board of examiners, must be paid out of any money in the general fund of the treasury, which is hereby appropriated, and the Comptroller may demand and receive from the county, or city and county interested, the proportion of such costs, or may deduct such proportion from any money then or to become due to said county, or city and county. Such action must be begun on or before the first Monday in June of the year succeeding the year in which the taxes were levied, and a failure to begin such action is deemed a waiver of the rights of action.

The state treasurer, represented by the attorney general of the state, demurred to the complaint upon various grounds affecting the merits of the case, and also moved to dismiss the case upon the ground that the circuit court had no jurisdiction of the defendant or of the action.

The demurrer was sustained with leave to amend, and the motion to dismiss was denied. Reinhart v. McDonald, 76 F. 403.

An amended complaint was filed, but a demurrer to it was sustained, with leave to amend. No further amendment having been filed, the action was dismissed by the circuit court. Smith v. Rackliffe, 83 F. 983. That judgment was affirmed in the circuit court of appeals. 87 F. 964.

Is this suit to be regarded as one against the State of California? The adjudged cases permit only one answer to this question. Although the state, as such, is not made a party

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defendant, the suit is against one of its officers as treasurer; the relief sought is a judgment against that officer in his official capacity, and that judgment would compel him to pay out of the public funds in the treasury of the state a certain sum of money. Such a judgment would have the same effect as if it were rendered directly against the state for the amount specified in the complaint. This case is unlike those in which we have held that a suit would lie by one person against another person to recover possession of specific property, although the latter claimed that he was in possession as an officer of the state and not otherwise. In such a case, the settled doctrine of this Court is that the question of possession does not cease to be a judicial question -- as between the parties actually before the court -- because the defendant asserts or suggests that the right of possession is in the state of which he is an officer or agent. Tindal v. Wesley, 167 U.S. 204, 221, and authorities there cited. In the present case, the action is not to recover specific moneys in the hands of the state treasurer, nor to compel him to perform a plain ministerial duty. It is to enforce the liability of the state to pay a certain amount of money on account of the payment of taxes alleged to have been wrongfully exacted by the state from the plaintiffs. Nor is it a suit to enjoin the defendant from doing some positive or affirmative act to the injury of the plaintiffs in their persons or property, but one in effect to compel the state, through its officer, to perform its promise to return to taxpayers such amount as may be adjudged to have been taken from them under an illegal assessment.

The case, in some material aspects, is like that of Louisiana v. Junel, 107 U.S. 711, 726-728. That was a proceeding by mandamus against officers of Louisiana to compel them to use the public moneys in the state treasury for the retirement of certain bonds issued by the state, but which it subsequently refused to recognize as valid obligations, and directed its officers not to pay. This Court said:

It may be, without doubt, easily ascertained from the accounts how much of the money on hand is applicable to the payment of this class of debts; but the law nowhere requires the setting apart of this fund any more than

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others from the common stock. In the treasury all funds are mingled together, and kept so until called for to meet specific demands. . . . The remedy sought, in order to be complete, would require the court to assume all the executive authority of the state, so far as it related to the enforcement of this law, and to supervise the conduct of all persons charged with any official duty in respect to the levy, collection, and disbursement of the tax in question until the bonds, principal and interest, were paid in full, and that, too, in a proceeding in which the state, as a state, was not and could not be made a party. It needs no argument to show that the political power cannot be thus ousted of its jurisdiction and the judiciary set in its place. When a state submits itself, without reservation, to the jurisdiction of a court in a particular case, that jurisdiction may be used to give full effect to what the state has by its act of submission allowed to be done, and if the law permits coercion of the public officers to enforce any judgment that may be rendered, then such coercion may be employed for that purpose. But this is very far from authorizing the courts, when a state cannot be sued, to set up its jurisdiction over the officers in charge of the public...

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