Frank Fairbank v. United States

Decision Date15 April 1901
Docket NumberNo. 226,226
PartiesFRANK M. FAIRBANK, Plff. in Err. , v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

On March 7, 1900, plaintiff in error was convicted in the district court of the United States for the district of Minnesota on the charge of issuing, as agent of the Northern Pacific Railway Company, an export bill of lading upon certain wheat exported from Minnesota to Liverpool, England, without affixing thereto an internal revenue stamp, as required by the act of June 13, 1898 (30 Stat. at L. 448, chap. 448). Upon that conviction he was sentenced to pay a fine of $25. His contention on the trial was that that act, so far as it imposes a stamp tax on foreign bills of lading, is in conflict with article 1, § 9, of the Constitution of the United States, which reads: 'No tax or duty shall be laid on any articles exported from any state.' This contention was not sustained by the trial court, and this writ of error was sued out to review the judgment solely upon the foregoing constitutional question.

Section 6 of the act reads:

'Sec. 6. That on and after the first day of July, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, there shall be levied, collected, and paid, for and in respect of the several bonds, debentures, or certificates of stock and of indebtedness, and other documents, instruments, matters, and things mentioned and described in schedule A of this act, or for or in respect of the vellum, parchment, or paper upon which such instruments, matters, or things, or any of them, shall be written or printed, by any person or persons or party who shall make, sign, or issue the same, or for whose use or benefit the same shall be made, signed, or issued, the several taxes or sums of money set down in figures against the same respectively, or otherwise specified or set forth in the said schedule.'

In schedule A is this clause:

'Bills of lading or receipt (other than charter party) for any goods, merchandise, or effects, to be exported from a port or place in the United States to any foreign port or place, ten cents.'

Also the following:

'It shall be the duty of every railroad or steamboat company, carrier, express company, or corporation, or person whose occupation is to act as such, to issue to the shipper or consignor, or his agent, or person from whom any goods are accepted for transportation, a bill of lading, manifest, or other evidence of receipt and forwarding for each shipment received for carriage and transportation, whether in bulk or in boxes, bales, packages, bundles, or not so inclosed or included; and there shall be duly attached and canceled, as is in this act provided, to each of said bills of lading, manifests, or other memorandum, and to each duplicate thereof, a stamp of the value of one cent.'

And this proviso at the end of the schedule:

'Provided, That the stamp duties imposed by the foregoing schedule on manifests, bills of lading, and passage tickets shall not apply to steamboats or other vessels plying between ports of the United States and ports in British North America.'

Mr. C. W. Bunn for plaintiff in error.

Solicitor General Richards for defendant in error.

Messrs. George A. King and William B. King for other interested parties.

Mr. Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court:

The constitutionality of an act of Congress is a matter always requiring the most careful consideration. The presumptions are in favor of constitutionality, and before a court is justified in holding that the legislative power has been exercised beyond the limits granted, or in conflict with restrictions imposed by the fundamental law, the excess or conflict should be clear. And yet, when clear, if written constitutions are to be regarded as of value, the duty of the court is plain to uphold the Constitution, although in so doing the legislative enactment falls. The reasoning in support of this was, in the early history of this court, forcibly declared by Chief Justice Marshall in Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch, 137, 177, 2 L. ed. 60, 73, and nothing can be said to add to the strength of his reasoning. His language is worthy of quotation:

'The Constitution is either a superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, is altherable when the legislature shall please to alter it.

'If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law; if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are absurd attempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power in its own nature illimitable.

'Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be that an act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is void.

'This theory is essentially attached to a written constitution, and is consequently to be considered, by this court, as one of the fundamental principles of our society. . . .

'It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.

'So if a law be in opposition to the Constitution, if both the law and the Constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the Constitution, or conformably to the Constitution, disregarding the law, the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.

'If, then, the courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the Constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.

* * * * *

'The particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void, and that courts as well as other departments are bound by that instrument.'

This judicial duty of upholding the provisions of the Constitution as against any legislation conflicting therewith has become now an accepted fact in the judicial life of this nation. That in the enforcement of this rule the decisions, national and state, are not all in harmony is not strange. Conflicts between constitutions and statutes have been easily found by some courts. It has been said, and not inappropriately, that in certain states the courts have been strenuous as to the letter of the state Constitution, and have enforced compliance with it under circumstances in which a full recognition of the spirit of the Constitution and the general power of legislation would have justified a different conclusion. We do not care to enter into any discussion of these varied decisions. We proceed upon the rule, often expressed in this court, that an act of Congress is to be accepted as constitutional unless on examination it clearly appears to be in conflict with provisions of the Federal Constitution.

In the light of this rule the inquiry naturally is, Upon what principles and in what spirit should the provisions of the Federal Constitution be construed? There are in that instrument grants of power, prohibitions, and a general reservation of ungranted powers. That in the grant of powers there was no purpose to bind governmental action by the restrictive force of a code of criminal procedure has been again and again asserted. The words expressing the various grants in the Constitution are words of general import, and they are to be construed as such, and as granting to the full extent the powers named. Further, by the last clause of § 8, art. 1, Congress is authorized 'to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.' This, construed on the same principles, vests in Congress a wide range of discretion as to the means by which the powers granted are to be carried into execution. This matter was at an early day presented to this court, and it was affirmed that there could be no narrow and technical limitation or construction; that the instrument should be taken as a constitution. In the course of the opinion the chief justice said:

'The subject is the execution of those great powers on which the welfare of a nation essentially depends. It must have been the intention of those who gave these powers to insure, as far as human prudence could insure, their beneficial execution. This could not be done by confining the choice of means to such narrow limits as not to leave it in the power of Congress to adopt any which might be appropriate and which were conducive to the end. This provision is made in a Constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs. To have prescribed the means by which government should, in all future time, execute its powers, would have been to change entirely the character of the instrument, and give it the properties of a legal code. It would have been an unwise attempt to provide, by immutable rules, for exigencies which, if foreseen at all, must have been seen dimly, and which can be best provided for as they occur. To have declared that the best means shall not be used, but those alone without which the power given would be nugatory, would have been to deprive the legislature of the capacity to avail itself of experience, to exercise its reason, and to accommodate its legislation to circumstances.' M'Culloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 415, 4 L. ed. 579, 603.


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