Sanborn v. Commissioners of Rice Co.

Decision Date01 January 1864
Citation9 Minn. 258
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

1. It is competent for this court to grant the relief sought by the relator. Comp. Stat. 475, § 5; also p. 632, §§ 4-8; 2 Minn. [343].

2. The writ asked for in this motion is the proper remedy. Because, — First, if the law be with this application (there being no issue of fact), it is apparent that no valid excuse can be given for the non-performance of the acts demanded of the commissioners. Comp. Stat. 632, § 7; 7 Cow. 524; 4 Abb. Pr. R. 36; 14 Johns. 325; Crary's N. Y. Pr. 286. Second, it is not sought to control judicial discretion, but to compel the commissioners to discharge a specific duty imposed upon them by statute. See Act; 12 How. Pr. R. 224; 20 Barb. 294; Crary's Special Proceedings, 273. 3 Hill, 612. Third, the relator has a clear legal right to relief, but no other appropriate legal remedy to which he can resort for the enforcement of that right. 1 Cow. 417; Rev. Stat. 632, § 5. Fourth, it is sought to enforce a substantial and valuable right which may be endangered by delay. 14 Johns. 325; Crary's Pr. (Sp. Proceedings), 286; id. 301, and cases there cited.

3. The provisions of the act of March 3, 1864, imperatively prescribing the duties of the commissioners of Rice County, and which duties the relator herein seeks to compel them to discharge, are not repugnant to our constitution, but are in harmony with its spirit. 4 N. Y. 419; 13 N. Y. 143; 11 Abb. Pr. R. 114: 12 Abb. Pr. R. 73, § 9; 24 Wend. 65.

Points and authorities for respondents: —

1. The act entitled "An act relating to certain claims against School District No. 10, of Rice County," approved March 3, 1864, is unconstitutional and void for the following reasons: First, it is the exercise of judicial powers by the legislature. Art. 3, § 1, Minn. Const.; Smith on Constitutional Construction, 347; 4 Ill. 242. Second, it deprives the party of property, without due process of law. 16 Mass. 84; 37 Me. 163. Third, it is an attempt to vest judicial powers in the county commissioners, in violation of § 9, art. 6, of the constitution, and sec. 1 of the same article. 6 Minn. [183]. Fourth, it deprives the party of the constitutional right of trial by jury. Fifth, it takes the private property of one man and transfers it to another, and this without any provision for compensation. Sixth, it is not valid, as the exercise of the taxing power, because it violates the constitutional rule of taxation. Const. art. 9, §§ 1 and 2. Seventh, if the legislature assumes the existence of an indebtedness by the district, this is judicial legislation. If they do not, but appoint a board to decide whether such indebtedness exists, the acts of such board are illegal and without authority, upon the principles already stated, the school district being a corporation, and as such entitled to the same rights with respect to property as other corporations or individuals. 8 Minn. [372]; 3 Ohio St. 1; 5 Ark. 204. Generally delegated power cannot be delegated. 1 Yerg. 452; 9 Yerg. 490. Eighth, but assuming that the legislature might properly determine the existence of an indebtedness, and that they have delegated no portion of the taxing power to the county commissioners, but are simply acting through them as public agents, still, under our constitution, they have no power by a special enactment to violate the constitutional rule of equality, by prescribing a novel and different rule for the payment of debts and the mode of taxation in our school districts from that prevailing elsewhere throughout the state. 4 N. H. 565, 572.

Lowell & Mott, for relator.

Cole & Case, for commissioners.


It is unquestionably the province of the legislature to levy and apportion taxes. The judiciary can only interfere in such cases where some clause of the constitution is violated. The question, whether a law is void for its repugnancy to the constitution, is at all times one of much delicacy, which ought seldom, if ever, to be decided in the affirmative in a doubtful case. To justify such decision, the opposition between the constitution and the law should be such that the judge feels a clear and strong conviction of their incompatibility with each other. This is especially so in this class of cases, where the object sought — equality of taxation — cannot be attained, but only approximated to, and when many objections may be urged to every law, no matter how well conceived or wisely framed, and, I may add further, when the legislative branch of the government is pre-eminently qualified to judge of the means best adapted to the accomplishment of the end sought. But when the law is clearly in contravention of the constitution, a judge cannot hesitate to so decide without being unmindful of the solemn obligations of his position. We must also bear in mind that constitutions necessarily deal in general language, and in their interpretation words are to be understood in the sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended.

In the decision of this case, while we seek to apply, we shall endeavor to be governed, by these salutary rules of interpretation. The general question submitted to our decision is whether the law of 1864, under which the defendants were required to proceed, is in contravention of any of the provisions of our state constitution. Section 1, art. 9, of the constitution, requires that "all taxes to be raised in this state shall be as nearly equal as may be," etc. Here is a general rule laid down for the levying of all taxes. Stinson v. Smith, 8 Minn. [372]. The language is, perhaps, not as specific as might be desired; but constitutions are not, and in the nature of things cannot, be specific. Their office is to distribute the powers of government, and to define the boundaries, and lay down general rules for the government of the different departments. Whatever difficulty there may be in the application of this rule, in some cases, we think it with sufficient clearness enunciates a principle of taxation that is easily understood and applied in the case under consideration.

Equality, as nearly as may be, must be aimed at in every law imposing a tax. The course to be pursued, and the means to be used in pursuance of this rule, are necessarily left in the discretion of the legislature, and, according to the rule of interpretation above laid down, the infraction of the constitution must be palpable, before the courts will declare the law unconstitutional. A substantial compliance with this rule by the legislature is therefore all that can be required, but they must, in no case, run counter to it or disregard it.

By way of illustration, let us suppose that the legislature, as a gratuity, proposed to give to John Doe $1,000, and, for the purpose of raising the amount, imposed a tax on some school district in the state. The necessary inequality of the tax, and, therefore, the unconstitutionality of the law, would be patent at first sight. The law itself would be incontrovertible evidence that equality of taxation was not in that instance aimed at by the legislature. The gift being a state bounty, each locality is presumed to have been equally interested in and benefited by it, and the burden consequent thereon should have been a state burden.

From the constitutional restrictions above cited, we think this general rule is clearly deducible — that a tax cannot be imposed exclusively on any subdivision of the state, to pay an indebtedness or claim which is not peculiarly the debt of such subdivision or to raise money for any purpose not peculiarly for the benefit of such subdivision. In the application of this general rule to the case under consideration, we have to inquire whether there has been established any valid claim or debt against said school district, in favor of the plaintiff, or, rather, whether, in pursuance of the provisions of the aforesaid act, the plaintiff could legally establish any such claim or debt.

In the examination of this point, also, we have to consider the limitations imposed by our state constitution on the action of the legislature. Our state constitution, like the constitution of (we believe) every other state in the Union, divides the attributes of government into three great branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, and declares that no person belonging to or constituting one of these departments shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others, except in instances expressly provided in the constitution.

It is not necessary for us on this occasion to particularize the cases thus expressly excepted, because none of them have any bearing upon the point to be decided in this case. Thus, each department of government is strictly confined within its appropriate sphere, and an attempt to exercise any power properly belonging to either of the other departments, is not only unauthorized, but positively forbidden. And while the legislature is thus expressly precluded from exercising any judicial power itself, it cannot authorize the commissioners of Rice County, or any other persons, to exercise such power, because the judicial power of the state is vested by the constitution exclusively in the courts. If, therefore, the powers conferred, or attempted to be conferred, on the commissioners of Rice County, by said act of the legislature, are in their nature judicial, if they are powers not "properly belonging to" the legislative, but to the judicial department of the government, then the act is in contravention of the constitution, and void. If the plaintiff has not a valid or legal claim against said school district, the amount awarded him would be merely a gift or gratuity, and could not, as we have above shown, be legally raised by a tax levied exclusively on said school district. If he has a...

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