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WESTERN UNION TEL CO v. MISSOURI, 190 U.S. 412 (1903)

U.S. Supreme Court

WESTERN UNION TEL CO v. MISSOURI, 190 U.S. 412 (1903)

190 U.S. 412

WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY, Plff. in Err.,
v.
STATE OF MISSOURI at the Relation and the Use of CHRIS. GOTTLIEB, Collector of the Revenue for Jackson County, Missouri.
No. 256.

Argued April 21, 1903.
Decided May 18, 1903.

[190 U.S. 412, 413]   The defendant in error is the tax collector of Jackson county, Missouri, and brought this action against the plaintiff in error in the circuit court of that county for the sum of $1,027.22, the taxes assessed against plaintiff in error for the year 1899, apportioned to Jackson county. The answer of the plaintiff in error alleged illegality in the taxes upon two grounds: First, that the taxes were levied upon the franchise of the plaintiff in error, derived from the United States under certain acts of the Congress; second, that the state board of equalization, intending to injure the plaintiff by compelling it to pay an excessive and disproportionate share of state and local taxes, assessed its poles, wires, and instruments at far more than their actual value.

The plaintiff in error is a telegraph company, incorporated by the state of New York. It does business in the state of Missouri, having offices in a number of cities of that state, and its lines run between those cities and to and from them to other places in the Union; in other words, the plaintiff in error engages in intrastate and interstate business. It claims to have no franchises from the state of Missouri ( except in an unimportant instance), but occupies the streets of its cities, and its public roads and highways, by authority of the act of Congress of July 24, 1866 (14 Stat. at L. 221, chap. 230, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3579), entitled 'An Act to Aid in the Construction of Telegraph Lines, and to Secure to the Government the Use of the Same for Postal, Military, and Other Purposes.' The material part of 1 of the act is as follows:

Section 2 provides that the messages between the officers and agents of the government shall have priority, and be sent at rates to be fixed by the Postmaster General.

Section 3 forbids the transfer of the rights conferred by the act.

Section 4 gives the United States the power to purchase the telegraph lines, property, and effects of any company availing itself of the benefits of the act.

Section 4 is as follows:

Under the Constitution and laws of Missouri, the state board of equalization, composed of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, and attorney general, assesses railroad and telegraph property, and it also equalizes the real and personal property assessed by the local assessors. Exercising its powers of original assessment, the board made the following order in regard to the property of plaintiff in error:

State of Missouri, office of state auditor.

Be it remembered that heretofore, to wit, on the 25th day of July, 1899, the following, among other proceedings, were had by the state board of equalization, viz.:

The state board of equalization having given to the Western Union Telegraph Company opportunity to be heard personally by the board, and having heard the said company, through its officers and agents, and having carefully considered the facts set out in the returns and the statements of said company, and all evidence of value, and all matters bearing upon [190 U.S. 412, 415]   the question of the value of the property of said company, and considering the cost of construction and equipment of said Western Union Telegraph Company, and the location thereof, and its traffic and business, and the market and par value of its stocks and bonds, and the gross receipts and net earnings and franchise owned by said company, and the value thereof, and having received evidence concerning the value of the cost of construction of said telegraph line, and the market value and par value of the stocks and bonds, and the gross receipts and net earning power, and the franchise and value thereof, and having heard evidence upon and considering all other matters ascertainable by said board bearing upon the question of the value of said company, which, in the opinion of the board, would assist in its findings, conclusions, and judgment in arriving at the actual cash value of the property of said telegraph company; on motion the state board of equalization assesses and values for taxes of 1899 the property of said Western Union Telegraph Company at $1,827,727.45; and it is further ordered by the state board of equalization that the assessed value thereof be distributed upon the classes of property as follows:

6,075.98 miles of poles at $71.50 per mile $434,432 57 23,767.34 miles of wire at $22.02 per mile 523,356 82 3,375 instruments at $5.70 each 13,537 50 All other porperty at 856,400 56 ___ $1,827,727 45

The apportionment of the tax to Jackson county was as follows:

For state purposes $202 43 For county purposes 283 40 For road purposes 35 41 For general county school purposes 370 61 For school building purposes 2 98 For other school purposes 19 03 For Kansas City municipal purposes 81 21 For Independence municipal purposes 25 38 For Kaw township railroad purposes 2 03 For Blue township railroad purposes 4 74 ___ Total $1,027 22 [190 U.S. 412, 416]   The case was tried without a jury and the trial court found 'the fact to be from the evidence and the pleadings that the defendant owned in the state of Missouri, at the time of said assessment, the poles, wires, and instruments of the value hereinbefore set forth. And the court finds the fact to be from the evidence that in valuing 'all other property' of defendant the state board took into consideration the franchise of defendant company, and the court finds under the law, and so declares, that the franchise of defendant company is not subject to valuation and taxation, and as to this item of the above-named valuation the court finds the issues for the defendant.'

Judgment was entered against plaintiff in error in the sum of $605.82, being the tax on the poles, wires, and instruments of the company, with interest at 2 per cent for collector's fees, and also for attorney's fees. The amount found due was made a first lien against the property of defendant in error, and special execution ordered to be issued. Both parties moved for a new trial, which motions were denied. Both parties then appealed to the supreme court of the state, which court reversed the judgment of the circuit court. After an elaborate discussion of the case the supreme court said:

This writ of error was then sued out. Other facts appear in the opinion.

Messrs. Eleneious Smith, John F. Dillon, Alexander New, and Henry D. Estabrook for plaintiff in error.

[190 U.S. 412, 419]   Messrs. Hunter M. Meriwether and Robert E. Ball for defendant in error. [190 U.S. 412, 420]  

Mr. Justice McKenna, after stating the facts, delivered the opinion of the court:

On the question of fact, if it be such, as to what the item 'of other property at $856,400.56,' in the [190 U.S. 412, 421]   assessment by the board of equalization, was constituted of the trial court and the supreme court of the state are not in accord. The trial court found the 'fact to be from the evidence that, in valuation 'of other property' of defendant, the state board took into consideration the franchise of defendant company.' It is apparent from the court's opinion that by franchise the court meant the rights and privileges obtained by the plaintiff in error under the act of Congress of July 24, 1866. The supreme court of the state, however, expressed its conclusion from the evidence, as follows:

Plaintiff in error asserts the correctness of the finding of the trial court, and insists that it is the only finding that could have been made, and bases the argument against the taxes assessed on that insistence. But if the finding on the question is one of fact, necessarily we are bound by that made by the supreme court of the state. The trial court picked out the rights given to the defendant under the act of Congress, denominated them a franchise, contemplated the franchise as a distinct proprietary entity, and, because it was derived from the Federal government, decided that it was exempt from taxation. The necessary consequence was and is to destroy the relation between that franchise and the other properties of the plaintiff in error, regarding them, not as parts of the system, but abstractly,-regarding the poles not differently from other poles, the wire not different from other wire. The supreme court, on the contrary, regarded the properties as related and as constituting a system, and because of their relation having a value greater than the sum of the values of the individual things regarded merely as such. Viewing the order of the board of equalization as the supreme court viewed it, was it valid? In other words, Is the state in exercising its taxing power limited to assessing the mere material things used by the plaintiff in error, and must it regard them as of no greater value than they had when they reposed in lumber yards and factories, with cost added of putting them in place? Or the proposition may be state another way, which better expresses the ultimate contention of the plaintiff in error. Conceding that the tangible property of the telegraph company derives value from its use in a system, does the company do business in the state in pursuance of the Constitution of the United States and the act of July, 1866, and become thereby an instrument of interstate commerce and a government agent, and as such exempt from the taxation contested in this case? We think the question has been answered by this court. [190 U.S. 412, 423]   In Western U. Teleg. Co. v. Atty. Gen. 125 U.S. 530 , 31 L. ed. 790, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 961, the effect of the act of July, 1866, upon the power of the state to tax the property of telegraph companies was considered. The laws of Massachusetts imposed a tax upon the Western Union Telegraph Company on account of the property owned and used by it within that state, the value of which was ascertained by comparing the length of its lines within the state with the length of its entire lines. The tax was sustained. The act of July, 1866, was urged against the tax as it is urged here.

The contentions of the company in that case was, as it is in this, that it did not derive its existence from the state of Missouri, but from the state of New York; that it did not do business in the state of Missouri by permission of that state, but by virtue of being an instrument of interstate commerce; that its rights and privileges and franchises were conferred by the United States and constituted it an agent of the United States, and as such agent it was exempt from the tax imposed. The contentions were rejected. The court did not test or measure the power of the state by the name which its laws gave the tax, and, speaking by Mr. Justice Miller, said:

And that power of the state was explained in an elaborate opinion, and sustained. These propositions were laid down: [190 U.S. 412, 424]   The company owed its existence as a corporation and its right to exercise the business of telegraphy to the laws of the state under which it was organized; that the privilege of running the lines of its wires over and along the military and post roads of the United States was granted by the act of Congress, but that the statute was merely permissive, and conferred no exemption from the ordinary burdens of taxation; that the state could not, by any specific statute, prevent a corporation from placing its lines along the post roads or stop the use of them after they were so placed, but the corporation could be taxed, in exchange for the protection it received from the state, 'upon its real or personal property as any other person would be.' And, describing the particular tax imposed, it was said:

In other words, the lines in Massachusetts were regarded as a part of a system, and assessed accordingly.

The statute of Massachusetts came up again for consideration in Atty. Gen. v. Western U. Teleg. Co. 141 U.S. 40 , 35 L. ed. 628, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 889, and the principles announced in Western U. Teleg. Co. v. Atty. Gen. 125 U.S. 530 , 31 L. ed. 790, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 961, were affirmed and followed. See also Ratterman v. Western U. Teleg. Co. 127 U.S. 411 , 32 L. ed. 229, 2 Inters. Com. Rep. 59, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1127; Leloup v. Port of Mobile, 127 U.S. 640 , 32 L. ed. 311, 2 Inters. Com. Rep. 134, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1380

These cases establish that, in estimating the value of the property of a telegraph company situate within a state, it may be regarded, not abstractly or strictly locally, but as a part of a system operated in other states, and that the state was not precluded from taxing the property because the state had not created the company or conferred franchise upon it, or because it derived rights or privileges under the act of July, 1866, or [190 U.S. 412, 425]   was engaged in interstate commerce. Every one of the fundamental propositions, therefore, contended for by plaintiff in error, those decisions declare unsound.

But it is contended that the method of assessment followed in those cases was sustained because they were prescribed by the legislature, and that in the case at bar the method adopted was not prescribed or authorized by the laws of Missouri. The answer is obvious. What the laws of Missouri authorized was competent for the supreme court of Missouri to decide, and it decided that the order of the board of equalization was legal under the Constitution and statutes of the state. The decision, constituting, as it does, an interpretation of the Constitution and laws of the state, is not open to dispute here. If it were, it would seem incontestable that the state could either prescribe the method or confer upon its taxing officers the power to adopt a suitable one. And these is nothing in the Adams Exp. Co. Cases, 166 U.S. 171, 225 , 41 S. L. ed. 960, 979, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 527, 608, to the contrary.

2. The plaintiff in error asserts that the board of equalization practised discrimination against it by assessing at a value disproportionate to the value assessed on real and personal property by local assessing officers. This defense was expressed as follows:

Testimony was introduced to sustain the averments.

The supreme court of Missouri held, however, that plaintiff in error could not, even under the cases cited by it, avail itself of the defense. The court said:

We concur in this view. The proceedings before the board were quasi judicial, and the order made by it was within its jurisdiction. It was not void on its face, and cannot be resisted in an action at law. This is the principle announced in the case referred to. In Stanley v. Albany County [ 121 U.S. 535 , 30 L. ed. 1001, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1234] is cited, among other cases, Balfour v. Portland, 28 Fed. 738. The case is especially pertinent. The action was at law for the recovery of taxes paid under protest which had been levied upon property which, it was charged, had been deliberately overvalued. Recovery was denied. The circuit court said:

So this court said in Stanley v. Albany County:

And we think overvaluation of property cannot be a ground of defense at law. In other words, the action of the tax officers, being in the nature of a judgment, must be yielded to until set aside. This can only be done in a direct proceeding. The property owner is in effect a plaintiff, and the condition of relief against the enforcement of the quasi judicial order, which he attacks, is a tender of payment of the taxes that he ought to pay. And this condition would still be upon him if he set up overvaluation as an equitable defense to an action brought against him. Los Angeles County v. Ballerino, 99 Cal. 594, 597, 32 Pac. 581, 34 Pac. 329. This certainly would be so in Missouri, under the doctrine expressed by the supreme court of the state in the case at bar.

Judgment affirmed.

Mr. Justice Brewer concurs in the result.

Mr. Justice White and Mr. Justice Peckham dissent.

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