Brown v. Houston

Decision Date04 May 1885
Citation29 L.Ed. 257,5 S.Ct. 1091,114 U.S. 622
PartiesBROWN and another v. HOUSTON, State Tax Collector, and another
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

J. P. Hornor and

C. W. Hornor, for plaintiffs in error.

No appearance for defendants in error.


This suit was brought by the plaintiffs in error in the civil district court for the parish of Orleans, state of Louisiana, on the thirtieth of December, 1880, to enjoin the defendant Houston from seizing and selling a certain lot of coal belonging to the plaintiffs, situated in New Orleans. They alleged in their petition that they were residents and did business in Pittsburgh, state of Pennsylvania; that Houston, state tax collector of the upper district of the parish of Orleans, had officially notified Brown & Jones, the agents of the plaintiffs in New Orleans, that they (Brown & Jones) were indebted to the state of Louisiana in the sum of $352.80, state tax for the year 1880 upon a certain lot of Pittsburgh coal, assessed as their property, and valued at $58,800; that they (Brown & Jones) were delinquents for said tax; and that he, said tax collector, was about to seize, advertise, and sell said coal to pay said tax, as would appear by a copy of the notice annexed to the petition. The plaintiffs alleged that they were not indebted to the state of Louisiana for said tax; that they were the sole owners of the coal, and were not liable for any tax hereon, having paid all taxes legally due for the year 1880 on said coal in Pennsylvania; and that the said coal was simply under the care of Brown & Jones as the agents of the plaintiffs in New Orleans, for sale. They further alleged that said coal was mined in Pennsylvania, and was exported from said state and imported into the state of Louisiana as their property, and was then, (at the time of the petition,) and had always remained, in its original condition, and never had been or become mixed or incorporated with other property in the state of Louisiana; that when said assessment was made, the said coal was afloat in the Mississippi river, in the parish of Orleans, in the original condition in which it was exported from Pennsylvania, and the agents, Brown & Jones, notified the board of assessors of the parish that the coal did not belong to them, but to the plaintiffs, and was held as before stated, and was not subject to taxation, and protested against the assessment for that purpose. The plaintiffs averred that the assessment of the tax and any attempt to collect the same were illegal and oppressive, and contrary to the constitution of the United States, article 1, § 8, pars. 1 and 3, and section 10, par. 2. They therefore prayed an injunction to prevent the seizure and sale of the coal, which, upon giving the requisite bond, was granted.

The notice of assessment referred to in the petition, and annexed thereto, was as follows:



'NEW ORLEANS, December 20, 1880.

'To Brown & Jones, Gravier and Charles street—SIR: You are hereby officially notified, in conformity with the provisions of act No. 77 of 1880, that the state taxes assessed to you on movable property in this parish, which amount to the sum of $352.80 (the aggregate assessed value of such property being $58,800.00) fell due and should have been paid in full on or before the first day of the current month; that you became a delinquent for said taxes on such first day of December; that after the expiration of twenty days from the date of this notice, I, as tax collector of the upper district of the parish of Orleans, will advertise for sale the movable property on which the said taxes are due in the manner provided by law for judicial sales; that at the principal front door of the court-house, where the civil district court of said parish is held, I will sell, within the legal hours for judicial sales, for cash, and without appraisement, such portion of the said movable property as you shall point out and deliver to me; and in case you shall not point out sufficient property, that I will at once, and without further delay, sell for cash, without appraisement, the least quantity of said movable property which any bidder will buy for the amount of taxes assessed upon movable property, with interest and costs.

Respectfully, yours,


'State Tax Collector, Upper District, Parish of Orleans.'

The defendant answered with a general denial, but admitting the assessment of the tax and the intention to sell the property for payment thereof.

The plaintiffs, to sustain the allegations of their petition, produced two witnesses. George F. Rootes testified that he was the general agent and manager of the business of Brown & Jones in New Orleans; that when the assessment complained of was made, the firm had paid the state taxes due upon their capital stock, and had paid state and city licenses to do business for that year; that, at the time of the assessment of the tax in question, the coal upon which it was levied was in the hands of Brown & Jones, as agents for the plaintiffs, for sale, having just arrived from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by flatboats, and was on said boats in which it arrived, and afloat in the Mississippi river; that it was held by Brown & Jones to be sold for account of the plaintiffs by the boat-load, and that since then more than half of it had been exported from this country on foreign steam-ships, and the balance sold into the interior of the state for plantation use by the flat-boat load. Samuel S. Brown, one of the plaintiffs, testified that the plaintiffs were the owners of the coal in question; that it was mined in plaintiffs' mine, in Allegheny county, Pennsylvania; that a tax of two or more mills was paid on it in Pennsylvania as state tax thereon, in the year 1880, being the tax of 1880; that a tax was also paid on it to the county of Allegheny for the year 1880; that it was shipped from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1880, and was received in New Orleans in its original condition, and in its original packages, and still owned by the plaintiffs. No other proof was offered in the case.

The Louisiana statute of April 9, 1880, act No. 77, under which the assessment was made, provided as follows:

'Section 1. That for the calendar year 1880, and for each and every succeeding calendar year, there are hereby levied annual taxes, amounting in the aggregate to six mills on the dollar of the assessed valuation hereafter to be made of all property situated within the satate of Louisiana, except such as is expressly exempted from taxation by the (state) consititution.'

The exemptions from taxation under the constitution of Louisiana do not afect the question. Upon the case as thus made the district court of the parish dissolved the injunction and dismissed the suit. On appeal to the supreme court of Louisiana this judgment was affirmed, and the case is now here by writ of error to the judgment of the supreme court. The following errors have been assigned: 'The lower court erred in holding (1) that the tax in question did not violate article 4, § 2, cl. 1, of the federal constitution; (2) that it did not violate article 1, § 8, cl. 3, of the same instrument; (3) that it did not violate article 1, § 10, cl. 2, of the same instrument.' The clauses here referred to are these: '(1) The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states. (2) The congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. (3) No state shall, without the consent of congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its inspection laws.'

The constitutional questions here presented were argued in the supreme court of Louisiana, and in what manner the subject was viewed by that court may be seen by the following extracts from its opinion, filed as part of the judgment. The court said: 'First. This act [No. 77 of 1880] does not in its terms discriminate against the products of other states or the property of the citizens of other states, but subjects all property liable to taxation found within the state, whether of its own citizens or citizens of other states, whether imported from other states or produced here, to the same rate of taxation. * * * Second. The coal in question was taxed in common with all other property found within the state. We held in the case of City of New Orleans v. Eclipse Tow-boat Company, recently decided by us, but not reported,1 that the clause in the federal constitution giving to congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the states, had no immediate relation to or necessary connection with the taxing power of a state. Every tax upon property, it is true, may affect more or less the operations of commerce, by diminishing the profits to be derived from the subjects of commerce, but it does not for that reason amount to a regulation of commerce within the meaning of the federal constitution; and such is the doctrine laid down by the supreme court of the United States, 15 Wall. 293. * * * Third. This tax cannot be regarded as a duty or impost levied by the state on imports. To give such a construction to it, and to recognize the alleged prohibition contended for, ould create an exemption for all goods and merchandise and property of every kind and description brought into the state for sale or use, and by such construction destroy a main source of revenue to the state. As we had occasion to show in the case referred to, the word 'imports' used in the constitution has been construed to apply, not to property brought or imported from other states of the Union, but solely to imports from foreign countries. Woodruff v. Parham, 8 Wall. 122; 5 Wall. 479. * * *'2

In approaching the consideration of the case we will first take up the last objection raised by the...

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