Heine v. the Levee Commissioners

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation22 L.Ed. 223,19 Wall. 655,86 U.S. 655
Decision Date01 October 1873

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Louisiana.

This was a suit in chancery brought by Heine and others, holders of bonds issued by what is called the board of levee commissioners of the levee district for the parishes of Carroll and Madison of the State of Louisiana. The board thus described was made a quasi corporation by the legislature of Louisiana, with authority to issue the bonds and provide for the payment of interest and principal by taxes levied upon the real and personal property within the district. The bill alleged a failure to levy these taxes and to pay the interest on any part of said bonds, that the persons duly appointed levee commissioners had pretended to resign their office for the purpose of evading this duty, and that the complainants had applied in vain to the judge of the District Court, who was by statute authorized to levy a tax on the alluvial lands to pay the bonds if the levee commissioners failed to do so. The prayer for relief was that the levee commissioners be required to assess and collect the tax necessary to pay the bonds and interest, and if, after reasonable time, they failed to do so, that the district judge be ordered to do the same; and for such other and further relief as the nature of the case required.

No judgment at law had been recovered on the bonds or any of them, nor any attempt to collect the money due by suit in the common-law court.

A demurrer to the bill was sustained in the Circuit Court, and the plaintiffs appealed from the decree of dismissal rendered on that demurrer.

Mr. Thomas Allen Clarke, for the appellants, contended:

That the commissioners having resigned could no longer in their corporate capacity be sued at law.

That there was a contract between the bondholders and the corporation not unlike an equitable mortgage; for that the contract was not simply an agreement to pay money but one to pay money out of a fund under the control of the commissioners; that it belonged specially to equity to enforce such a contract.

That it was part of the contract that the taxes should pay these bonds; that the holders had, therefore, a species of lien on the lands on which the taxes were to be laid; this again being a matter specially of equitable cognizance.

That though the suit was by a bill in equity, yet that it might be taken (other grounds of relief failing) as a petition for mandamus.

That the case, in short, was a very complicated case, such as the law afforded no relief for; and that one was to be worked out through equitable mechanism unless a shocking injustice was to be tolerated.

Messrs. S. R. Walker, W. Tunstall, and J. E. Leonard, contra.

Mr. Justice MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

The question presented by the present case is not a new one in this court. It has been decided in numerous cases, founded on the refusal to pay corporation bonds, that the appropriate proceeding was to sue at law and by a judgment of the court establish the validity of the claim and the amount due, and by the return of an ordinary execution ascertain that no property of the corporation could be found liable to such execution and sufficient to satisfy the judgment. Then, if the corporation had authority to levy and collect taxes for the payment of that debt, a mandamus would issue to compel them to raise by taxation the amount necessary to satisfy the debt.1

Unless, then, there is some difficulty or obstruction in the way of this common-law remedy, chancery can have no jurisdiction.

It is said that by reason of the resignation of the levee commissioners on suit can be sustained against them so as to procure a judgment on which the mandamus may ultimately issue.

But the present suit is brought against these very men in their official character, and no difference can be seen in their capacity to be sued in a court of law and a court of equity. The same service of process is required in each. The same officers serve the process, and the jurisdiction of the court over the person is governed by precisely the same principles in each case. The court of chancery possesses no extraordinary powers to compel persons to submit to its jurisdiction and litigate before it, not possessed by a common-law court, when the latter is competent to give relief.

This proposition was directly in issue and distinctly settled in the case of Rees v. City of Watertown, at the present term.2 In that case the plaintiff had obtained judgment, issued execution, which was returned nulla bona, and had then procured a writ of mandamus, ordering the aldermen of the city to levy the tax. The aldermen resigned before the writ could be served, with intent to evade its effect. After other aldermen were elected, a new writ was served on them, and they in turn resigned, after an order to show cause why they should not be punished for a contempt in failing to obey the writ of mandamus. Notwithstanding all this, we held that chancery had no jurisdiction, by a direct proceeding, to levy the tax or to seize the property of the citizens and sell it for the satisfaction of the judgment.

That case was much stronger than the one before us, and is unquestionably decisive of this. It is very clearly shown that the total failure of ordinary remedies does not confer upon the court of chancery an unlimited power to give relief. Such relief as is consistent with the general law of the land, and authorized by the principles and practices of the courts of equity, will, under such circumstances, be administered. But the harship of the case, and the failure of the mode of procedure established by law, is not sufficient to justify a court of equity to depart from all precedent and assume an unregulated power of administering abstract justice at the expense of well-settled principles.

It is attempted in argument to support this exercise of authority by reference to some of the acknowledged grounds of equity jurisdiction. One of these is the doctrine of specific performance of...

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