City of Faribault v. Misener

Decision Date01 January 1873
Citation20 Minn. 347
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

O. F. Perkins, for appellant

Gordon E. Cole, for respondent.


The charter of the plaintiff, the city of Faribault, provides that "it shall be lawful for the common council of said city at any time to levy a corporation poll tax upon every qualified voter in said city: provided, that said tax shall not, in any one year, exceed the sum of two dollars on each person." "The common council shall have power * * * to authorize the formation of fire-engine, hook and ladder, and hose companies. * * * Every member of each company which may be authorized to be formed, shall be exempt from highway work and poll tax, from serving on juries, and from military duty, during the continuance of such membership." Sp. Laws 1872, p. 114, § 8; page 121, § 3.

Pursuant to the authority given by the charter, the common council of the city, in each of the years 1872 and 1873, levied and assessed a poll tax of two dollars on every qualified voter in the city, except the persons exempt by the section last quoted. During these years, and at the commencement of this action, the defendant was a qualified voter in the city, and not a fireman. The street commissioner of the city demanded payment of the poll tax for each of these years from the defendant, which being refused this action was brought before a justice of the peace to recover the sum of four dollars, being the amount of defendant's poll tax for the years 1872 and 1873, as a debt due from the defendant to the city. The justice rendered judgment for the defendant, which on appeal was affirmed by the district court, and the plaintiff appeals to this court.

The defendant contends that the clause in the charter, exempting firemen from the payment of poll tax, and the ordinance directing the levy and assessment of a poll tax upon all qualified voters, except such as are exempt by the provisions of the charter, are repugnant to the constitution of the state, art. 9, § 1, which is as follows: "All taxes to be raised in this state shall be as nearly equal as may be, and all property on which taxes are to be levied shall have a cash valuation, and be equalized and uniform throughout the state."

While the latter clause of this section can only apply to taxes upon property, the former clause is broad enough in its terms to include any possible form of taxation, whether of persons or property, and to prohibit all exemptions whatsoever. Upon a strict construction of its language, a poll tax upon qualified voters alone is as objectionable as a poll tax on all qualified voters except firemen, for it is undoubtedly possible to levy and assess a poll tax upon every inhabitant of the city, of whatsoever sex, age, or occupation. The effect of such a construction, however, would be to prohibit taxation by the poll altogether; for there can be no doubt but that a poll tax, thus levied and assessed, would justify the declaration of the bill of rights of the state of Ohio, "that the levying taxes by the poll is grievous and oppressive; therefore the legislature shall never levy a poll tax for county or state purposes."

No such prohibition as this is contained in the constitution of the state. The legislature has, therefore, the power to impose a poll tax. The very language of the constitution implies that absolute equality is not to be expected. Taxes are to be "as nearly equal as may be;" not as nearly equal as a mathematical calculation can make them, but as nearly equal as is consistent with the general welfare of the people, and an equitable distribution of the public burdens. The constitution does not require a theoretical equality at the expense of substantial equity. Sanborn v. Com'rs Rice Co. 9 Minn. 273, (Gil. 258;) Comer v. Folsom, 13 Minn. 219, (Gil. 205.) And in view of the grievous and oppressive results which would follow a levy and assessment upon the whole population of a certain sum per capita, — a mode of taxation which, under the guise of equality, might, and probably would, be productive of intolerable hardship, — it is clear that, in the exercise of its right to levy poll taxes, the legislature must deviate to some extent from any such Procrustean standard of equality as this.

Whether the deviation in the present case is such as to amount to a disregard of the constitutional requirement is a question upon which much light will be thrown by a review of the legislation of the territory and state of Minnesota upon the subject of poll taxes.

The poll tax, which is levied and collected in most of the cities of the state under charters similar to that of the plaintiff, is closely analogous to, and seems to be to some extent a substitute for, the highway labor tax, or the highway poll tax, as it may be called, which from the earliest times has been levied and assessed upon the inhabitants of townships under general laws. This highway poll tax, although levied and assessed in labor, may be commuted for in money, and is as truly a tax as if (like the road tax assessed on lands) it were levied and assessed in money, but could be commuted for in labor. In at least one instance in the statutes (Gen. St. c. 10, § 15) it is styled a "polltax." In the section before quoted from the plaintiff's charter the firemen are exempted from "highway work and poll tax," although the charter contains no provisions imposing highway labor on the inhabitants of the city. The case of Sawyer v. Allen, 3 Scam. 130, cited by the defendant's counsel as authority for the position that poll taxes should be equal, was a case involving the legality of an assessment of labor on the highways. And see Dill. Mun. Corp. (2d Ed.) § 604. The legislation upon the subject of highway poll taxes may, therefore, be referred to, for these, too, being taxes, are required to be as nearly equal as may be.

By the Revised Statutes of 1851, c. 8, art. 10, § 5, p. 79, it is provided that "every male person between the age of 21 and the age of 50 years, who is able to perform manual labor, shall be subject to labor, or furnish some person to labor [on the highways,] three days in each year."

This law continued in force until repealed (after the adoption of the state constitution) by the "Act to provide for township organization," passed August 13, 1858, at the first session of the state legislature. This act provides (at section 164) that "every male inhabitant, being above 21 years and under the age of 50, excepting paupers, idiots, lunatics, and such others as are exempt by law, shall be assessed at least two days in each year." Laws 1858, c. 75; Pub. St. c. 8. This section was re-enacted as section 9 in chapter 13 of the General Statutes of 1866, "Of roads, cartways, and bridges," the number of days' service required being limited to four. The act of March 8, 1873, entitled "An act relating to roads, cartways, and bridges," repeals chapter 13 of the General Statutes, but re-enacts section 9, with the provision for an assessment of "not less than one nor more than four days in each year." Laws 1873, c. 5, § 9. By the act of August 2, 1858, for the formation of fire companies, it is provided that the members of such companies shall be exempted from labor on the highways. Laws 1858, c. 84; Pub. St. c. 125. This act remained in force until the Revision of 1866.

At almost every session of the state legislature, cities have been incorporated under charters providing for the levy of a poll tax, in some cases on all qualified voters, and in others on all qualified voters except firemen. Sp. Laws 1858, cc. 71, 78, 79; 1862, c. 1; 1863, c. 6; 1864, c. 6; 1865, c. 13; 1866, c. 18; 1867, c. 19; 1872, c. 10, etc.

The plaintiff's and the other charters do not impose the poll tax upon precisely the same class of inhabitants on whom the highway poll tax is imposed, nor do they allow precisely the same exemptions; but the general laws and the city charters alike impose a poll tax upon a minority of the inhabitants, and they all contain exceptions of persons belonging to the class on whom the tax is laid, but who are specially exempted from its burden, and they alike deviate from rigid equality of...

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