Hagar v. Reclamation Dist No 108

Decision Date05 May 1884
Citation28 L.Ed. 569,111 U.S. 701,4 S.Ct. 663
PartiesHAGAR v. RECLAMATION DIST. NO. 108. 1 (Two Cases.)
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

W. C. Belcher, for appellant.

A. L. Rhodes, for appellee.


By an act of the legislature of California, passed in 1868, a general system was established for reclaiming swamp and overflowed salt marsh and tide lands in the state, of which there is a large quantity, and thus fitting them for cultivation. It will be sufficient for the purposes of this suit to state the general features of the system without going much into detail. It provides for the formation of reclamation districts where lands of the kind stated are susceptible of one mode of reclamation; such districts to be established by the board of supervisors of the county in which the lands, or the greater part of them, are situated, upon the petition of one-half or more of the holders thereof. The petition being granted, the petitioners are required to establish such by-laws as they may deem necessary for the work of reclamation, and to keep the same in repair; and to elect three of their number to act as a board of trustees to manage the same. This board is empowered to employ engineers and others to survey, plan, and estimate the cost of the work, and of land needed for right of way, including drains, canals, sluices, watergates, embankments, and material for construction; and to construct, maintain, and keep in repair all works necessary for the object in view. The trustees are required to report to the board of supervisors of the county, or, if the district be in more than one county, to the board of supervisors in each county, the plans of the work and estimates of the cost, together with estimates of the incidental expenses of superintendence and repairs. The supervisors are then to appoint three commissioners, who are jointly to view and assess upon each acre to be reclaimed or benefited a tax proportionate to the whole expense, and to the benefits which will result from the works; which tax is to be collected and paid into the county treasury or treasuries, as the case may be, and placed to the credit of the district, to be paid out for the work of reclamation, upon the order of the trustees, when approved by the board of supervisors of the county. If the district be in more than one county, the tax is to be paid into the treasury of the county in which the land assessed is situated. If the original assessment be insufficient for the complete reclamation of the lands, or if further assessments be required for the protection, maintenance, and repair of the works, the supervisors may order additional assessments upon presentation by the trustees of a statement of the work to be done, and an estimate of its cost, such assessments to be levied, and, if delinquent, collected, in the same manner as the original assessment. The commissioners are required to make a list of the amounts due from each owner of land in the district, and of the amount assessed against the unsold land, and file the same with the treasurer of the county in which the lands are situated. The lists thus prepared are to remain in the office of the treasurer for 30 days or longer, if so ordered by the trustees, during which time any person can pay to the treasurer the amount assessed against his land; but if, at the end of the 30 days, or the extended time, the tax has not been paid, the treasurer is to transmit the list to the district attorney, who is to proceed at once against the delinquents in the manner provided by law for the collection of state and county taxes. The Political Code of the state, which went into effect on the first of January, 1873, embraces substantially the provisions of the act of 1868. The changes are more in language than in substance. So far as subsequent proceedings are concerned, the Code prescribes the rule. The reclamation district No. 108, the plaintiff in the court below, was established in September, 1870, under the act of 1868. It embraces over 74,000 acres of land, situated in the counties of Yolo and Colusa, and forming a compact body susceptible of one mode of reclamation. The trustees of the district originally estimated the cost of the reclamation works, including incidental expenses, at $140,000, and the commissioners appointed assessed that sum upon the lands in the district. The amount proved to be insufficient to complete the works, and, upon the report of the trustees that the further sum of $192,000 was required for that purpose, the supervisors ordered that amount to be assessed, and the commissioners appointed by them levied the assessment upon the lands. This assessment became delinquent, and the present suits were brought to obtain a decree that the several amounts charged upon the lands of the appellant are liens upon them, and for their sale to satisfy the charges. One of the suits is to enforce the lien on the lands in Yolo county, and the other the liens on the lands in Colusa county. On his motion they were both removed to the circuit court of the United States. That court held in each case that the several sums assessed were valid liens upon the lands of the appellant on which they were levied, and ordered that the lands be sold for the payment of the amounts, with interest and costs. From these decrees the appeals are taken.

Of the several objections to the validity of the assessment urged in the court below, and pressed here, some arise under local statutes, not involving any questions of federal law, and some under the laws and constitution of the United States. The former relate to the manner in which the reclamation district was formed, it being established by the supervisors of one county, while part of the lands are situated in another county; to the fact that the appellant derived his title to his lands under a grant from the Mexican government; and to the requirement that the amounts assessed should be collected in gold and silver coin of the United States. There being no federal question touching these matters, we follow the decision of the state tribunals as to the construction and validity of the statutes. It is not open to doubt that it is in the power of the state to require local improvements to be made which are essential to the health and prosperity of any community within its borders. To this end it may provide for the construction of canals for draining marshy and malarious districts, and of levees to prevent inundations, as well as for the opening of streets in cities and of roads in the country. The system adopted in California to reclaim swamp and overflowed lands by forming districts, where the lands are susceptible of reclamation in one mode, is not essentially different from that of other states, where lands of that description are found. The fact that the lands may be situated in more than one county cannot affect the power of the state to delegate authority for the establishment of a reclamation district to the supervisors of the county containing the greater part of the lands. Such authority may be lodged in any board or tribunal which the legislature may designate.

In some states the reclamation is made by building levees on streams whose banks are subject to overflow; in other states by ditches to carry off the surplus water. Levees or embankments are necessary to protect lands on the lower Mississippi against annual inundations. The expense of such works may be charged against parties specially benefited, and be made a lien upon their property. All that is required in such cases is that the charges shall be apportioned in some just and reasonable mode, according to the benefit received. Absolute equality in imposing them may not be reached; only an approximation to it may be attainable. If no direct and invidious discrimination in favor of certain persons to the prejudice of others be made, it is not a valid objection to the mode pursued that, to some extent, inequalities may arise. It may possibly be that in some portions of the country there are o erflowed lands of so large an extent that the expense of their reclamation should properly be borne by the state. But this is a matter purely of legislative discretion. Whenever a local improvement is authorized, it is for the legislature to prescribe the way in which the means to meet its cost shall be raised, whether by general taxation, or by laying the burden upon the district specially benefited by the expenditure. County of Mobile v. Kimball, 102 U. S. 704. The rule of equality and uniformity, prescribed in cases of taxation for state and county purposes, does not require that all property, or all persons in a county or district, shall be taxed for local purposes. Such an application of the rule would often produce the very inequality it was designed to prevent. As we said in Lousiana v. Pillsbury, 105 U. S. 295, there would often be manifest injustice in subjecting the whole property of a city, and the same may be said of the whole property of any district, to taxation for an improvement of a local character. The rule, that he who reaps the benefit should bear the burden, must in such cases be applied.

The fact that the appellant's land was derived from a grant of the Mexican government in no respect affects the question. It is the character of the land and its susceptibility of being reclaimed under one system of works, and not the source of the owner's title, which authorize the action of the state. The lands granted by Mexico were not, by the treaty under which California was acquired, exempted from the control that the state exercises over all other lands. The objection made is founded upon the title of the act of 1868 and the language of some of its provisions, from which it is inferred that the system of reclamation prescribed was intended to apply only to lands acquired by the state under the Arkansas swamp act. But the supreme court of the state has passed directly upon this objection, in a controversy between ...

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