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    ORR v. GILMAN, 183 U.S. 278 (1902)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    ORR v. GILMAN, 183 U.S. 278 (1902)

    183 U.S. 278

    ALEXANDER E. ORR and Others, Plffs. in Err.,
    v.
    THEODORE P. GILMAN, Comptroller of the State of New York, and Bird S. Coler, Comptroller of the City of New York.
    No. 351.

    Argued November 25, 26, 1901.
    Decided January 6, 1902.

    David Dows, Sr., a citizen and resident of the city and state of New York, died March 30, 1890, leaving a last will and testament, which was duly admitted to probate by the surrogate's court of New York county on April 14, 1890. The will provided that the legal title to the property mentioned and described in the 6th clause thereof should vest in the executors' names as trustees during the lifetime of testator's son, David Dows, Jr., with power to manage and control the same, and with the duty to pay the net income therefrom the said David Dows, Jr. The will further provided that upon the death of David Dows, Jr., the property should vest absolutely and at once in such of his children him surviving and the issue of his deceased children as he should by his last will [183 U.S. 278, 279]   and testament designate and appoint, and in such manner and upon such terms as he might legally impose. In and by the 8th clause or paragraph of his said will, David Dows, Sr., devised and bequeathed the legal title to his residuary estate to his executors as trustees, to hold and manage the same, one-eighth part in trust during the lifetime of testator's widow and one eighth in trust for each of testator's seven children-one of whom was the said David Dows, Jr. It was made the duty of the trustees to pay over the net income to the respective persons named during their respective lives, and it was provided that, upon the death of each of said persons, the said one-eighth part of the residuary estate, with any accumulations and profits, should vest absolutely and at once in such of his or her children, or the issue of such children, as he or she might by his or her last will and testament designate and appoint, and in such manner and upon such terms as he or she may legally impose. It was provided in both the 6th and 8th clauses that if the legatee for life shall die intestate. then the property should vest absolutely and at once in his or her children surviving, share and share alike.

    David Dows, Jr., died January 13, 1899, leaving a last will and testament, which was duly admitted to probate by the surrogate's court of Westchester county, New York, by the 3d paragraph or clause whereof, in the exercise of the power of appointment given him in his father's will, he provided that the property mentioned and described in the said 6th and 8th clauses of the will of David Dows, Sr., should vest upon his death in his three children, David, Robert, and Kemeth, in a manner therein described.

    On October 31, 1900, Bird S. Coler, comptroller of the city of New York, and Theodore P. Gilman, comptroller of the state of New York, filed a petition in the surrogate's court of New York county, in which, after reciting the foregoing facts, they alleged that the transfer of funds and property of which David Dows, Jr., had the life use, and over which he had exercised the power of appointment given him in his father's will, was taxable, and they therefore prayed for the appointment of a transfer-tax appraiser, in order that the transfer tax [183 U.S. 278, 280]   might be duly assessed and imposed. Thereupon Charles K. Lexow was so appointed, and on January 31, 1901, after having given notice to the said comptrollers and to the executors and trustees of the last will of David Dows, Sr., and to the executors of the last will of David Dows, Jr., and to the guardians of the minor children of David Dows, Jr., the appraiser filed in the surrogate's office a report of his valuation of the interests of the three sons of David Dows, Jr., under the respective wills of their father and grandfather. Certain exceptions to this report were filed on behalf of the executors and guardians, the nature of which will hereafter appear. Thereafter, on February 15, 1901, the surrogate, on the basis of the report of the said appraiser, assessed a transfer tax of upwards of $7, 000 against each of the respective interests of the three sons of David Dows, Jr. The exceptions to the appraiser's report and to the assessment were, on March 6, 1901, after argument by counsel, overruled; and the surrogate entered the following order and judgment:

    An appeal was taken from the order and decree of the surrogate to the appellate division of the supreme court of New York, and by that court, on March 22, 1901, the order of the surrogate was affirmed. On appeal duly taken, the court of appeals of the and the record of the proceedings were remitted the order and judgment of the appellate division of the supreme court, and the judgment of the said court of appeals and the reocrd of the proceedings were remitted into the surrogate's court of New York, to be enforced according to law, and the judgment of the court of appeals was on May 28, 1901, made the judgment and order of the surrogate's court. And on June 13, 1901, a writ of error to that judgment was allowed, and the cause was brought to this court. [183 U.S. 278, 281]   Messrs. Horace E. Deming and Julius Henry Cohen for plaintiffs in error.

    Messrs. Jabish Holmes, Jr., and Edgar J. Levey for defendants in error.

    Statement by Mr. Justice Shiras:

    This is the case of a so-called transfer tax imposed under the laws of the state of New York. The various contentions of the plaintiffs in error, attacking the validity of the tax, were overruled by the courts of the state, and the cause is now before us on the general proposition that by the proceedings the plaintiffs in error, or those whom they represent as trustees and guardians, have been deprived of the equal protection of the laws of the state of New York, their privileges and immunities as citizens of the United States have been abridged, and their property taken without due process of law, in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and likewise, as to a portion of the property affected, in violation of 10 of article 1 of the Constitution of the United States.

    The first question presented arises out of subdivision 5 of 220 of the tax law of the state of New York, which reads as follows:

    This enactment became a law on April 16, 1897. David Dows, Sr., died March 30, 1890, leaving a will containing a power of appointment to his son, David Dows, Jr., which will was duly admitted to probate by the surrogate's court on April 14, 1890. David Dows, Jr., died on January 13, 1899, leaving a will in which he exercised the power of appointment given him in the will of his father, and apportioned the property which was the subject of the power among his three sons, who are represented in this litigation by the plaintiff in error.

    It is claimed that under the law of the state of New York as it stood at the time of his death, in 1890, David Dows, Sr., had a legal right to transfer, by will, his property, or any interest therein, to his grandchildren, without any diminution or impairment then imposed by the law of the state upon the exercise of that right; that his said grandchildren acquired vested rights in the property so transferred; and that the subsequent law, whose terms have been above transcribed, operates to diminish and impair those vested rights. In other words, it is claimed that it is not competent for the state, by a subsequent enactment, to exact a price or charge for a privilege lawfully exercised in 1890, and to thus take from the grandchildren a portion of the very property the full right to which had vested in them many years before.

    We here meet, in the first place, the question of the construction of the will of David Dows, Sr. Under and by virtue of that will did the property whose transfer is taxed pass to and become vested in the grandchildren, or did the property not become vested in them until and by virtue of the will of David Dows, Jr., exercising the power of appointment? The answer to be given to this question must, of course, be that furnished us by the court of appeals in this case (Re Dows, 167 N. Y. 227, 52 L. R. A. 433, 60 N. E. 439):

    It will be perceived that in putting this construction upon the will of David Dows, Sr., the court of appeals not merely construed the words of the will, but, by implication, applied to the case the provisions of the subdivision 5 of 220 under which the transfer tax in question was imposed, and thus construed that tax law, and affirmed its validity.

    While it is settled law that this court will follow the construction put by the state courts upon wills devising property situated within the state, and while it is also true that we adopt the construction of its own statutes by the state courts, a question may remain whether the statute, as so construed, imports a violation of any of the rights secured by applicable provisions of the Constitution of the United States. And such is the contention here.

    This court has no authority to revise the statutes of New York upon any grounds of justice, policy, or consistency to its own Constitution. Such questions are concluded by the decision of the legislative and judicial authorities of the state.

    In Carpenter v. Pennsylvania, 17 How. 456, 15 L. ed. 127, the question arose as to the validity, in its Federal aspect, of a law of the state of Pennsylvania imposing an inheritance tax on personal [183 U.S. 278, 284]   property which had passed into the possession of an executor before the passage of the act, and which was held by him for the purpose of distribution among the legatees, who were collateral relatives to the decedent. The act was held valid by the supreme court of the state, and was brought up to this court by a writ of error, where it was contended that such an act was in its nature an ex post facto law, which took the property of an individual to the use of the state, because of a fact which had occurred prior to the passage of the law; and also that the law, in its retroactive effect, impaired the obligation of a contract, in that it was alleged to absolve the executor from his contract, implied in law, to pay over the legacies to those entitled to them, just to the extent that the law required him to pay to the state. The opinion of the court, delivered by Mr. Justice Campbell, was in part as follows:

    It is true that this case was decided before the adoption of the 14th Amendment, but we think it correctly defines the limits of jurisdiction between the state and Federal governments, in respect to the control of the estates of decedents, both as they were regarded before, and have been regarded since, the adoption of the 14th Amendment. It has never been held that it was the purpose or function of that amendment to change the systems and policies of the states in regard to the devolution of estates, or to the extent of the taxing power over them.

    In Re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 , 34 L. ed. 519, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 930, it was stated by the present Chief Justice that--

    It was said in De Vaughn v. Hutchinson ( 165 U.S. 566 , 41 L. ed. 827, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 461), that 'it is a principle firmly established that to the law of the state in which the land is situated we must look for the rules which govern its descent, alienation, and transfer, and for the effect and construction of wills and other conveyances.'

    In Clarke v. Clarke, 178 U.S. 186 , 44 L. ed. 1028, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 873, the proposition was again announced as one requiring only to be stated, that the law of [183 U.S. 278, 287]   a state in which land is situated controls and governs its transmission by will, or its passage in case of intestacy; and that in this court the local law of a state is the law of that state, as announced by its court of last resort.

    In Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Sav. Bank, 170 U.S. 283 , 42 L. ed. 1037, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 594, the validity of a law of the state of Illinois imposing a legacy and inheritance tax, the rate progressing by the amount of the beneficial interest acquired, was assailed in the courts of Illinois as being in violation of the Constitution of that state requiring equal and uniform taxation. The state court having decided that the progressive feature did not violate the Constitution of that state, the case came to this court upon the contention that the establishment of a progressive rate was a denial both of due process of law and of the equal protection of the laws, within the meaning of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. But these contentions were held by this court to be untenable.

    See, likewise, Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41 , 44 L. ed. 969, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 747, and Plummer v. Coler, 178 U.S. 115 , 44 L. ed. 998, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 774, wherein were considered the nature of inheritance-tax laws and the extent of the powers of the states and of Congress in imposing and regulating them.

    In the light of the principles thus established we are unable to see in this legislation of the state of New York, as construed by its highest court, any infringement of the salutary provisions of the 14th Amendment. There are involved no arbitrary or unequal regulations prescribing different rates of taxation on property or persons in the same condition. The provisions of the law extend alike to all estates that descend or devolve upon the death of those who once owned them. The moneys raised by the taxation are applied to the lawful uses of the state, in which the legatees have the same interests with the other citizens. Nor is it claimed that the amount or rate of the taxation is excessive to the extent of confiscation.

    But it is further urged that the tax law of the state of New York, 221, expressly exempts from taxation or charge all real estate passing to lineal descendants by descent or devise, and all such descendants so taking title to real estate from ancestors; and it is said that under the interpretation of this law by the courts of the state of New York all property which [183 U.S. 278, 288]   was real estate at the time of the death of the person owning it continues, as to the lineal descendants, to be real estate, and is therefore exempt from taxation, though such descendants may not enter into possession and enjoyment of the property until years after the death of the ancestor who owned it, and the property in the meantime has been converted into cash or securities.

    It is true that the property described in the 6th paragraph of the will of David Dows, Sr., was real estate, but under the powers conferred in the will of David Dows, Sr., the trustees had converted the real estate, and held the proceeds as personal property, before the death of David Dows, Jr., and it was this personal property which became vested in the grandchildren under the exercise of the power of appointment. The court of appeals held that it was the execution of the power of appointment which subjected grantees under it to the transfer tax. This conclusion is binding upon this court in so far as it involves a construction of the will and of the statute. Nor are we able to perceive that thereby the plaintiffs in error were deprived of any rights under the Federal Constitution. The rule of law laid down by the New York courts is applicable to all alike, and even if the view of the court of appeals respecting the question was wrong, it was an error which we have no power to review.

    Another objection made to the judgment of the court of appeals affirming the surrogate's order is that the tax imposed upon transfers made under a power of appointment is a tax upon property, and not on the right of succession; and that, as a portion of the fund was invested in incorporated companies liable to taxation on their own capital, and in certain bonds of the state of New York, and in bonds of the city of New York exempt by statute from taxation, such exemption formed part of the contract under which said securities were purchased, and the tax imposed and the proceedings to enforce it were in violation of 10 of article 1 of the Constitution of the United States forbidding the states to pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts.

    The court of appeals overruled the proposition that the [183 U.S. 278, 289]   transfer tax in question was a tax upon property, and not upon the right of succession, and held that when David Dows, Sr., devised this property to the appointees under the will of his son, he necessarily subjected it to the charge that the state might impose on the privilege accorded to the son of making a will, and that the charge is the same in character as if it had been laid on the inheritance of the estate of the son himself; that is, for the privilege of succeeding to property under a will.

    In reaching this conclusion the court of appeals cited not only various New York cases, but several decisions of this court, the principles of which were thought to be applicable. Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Sav. Bank, 170 U.S. 283 , 42 L. ed. 1037, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 594; Plummer v. Coler, 178 U.S. 115 , 44 L. ed. 998, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 774; Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41 , 44 L. ed. 969, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 747; Murdock v. Ward, 178 U.S. 139 , 44 L. ed. 1009, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 775.

    We think it unnecessary to enter upon another discussion of a subject so recently considered in the cases just cited, and that it is sufficient to say that, in our opinion, the court of appeals did not err when it held that a transfer or succession tax, not being a direct tax upon property, but a charge upon a privilege exercised or enjoyed under the law of the state, does not, when imposed in cases where the property passing consists of securities exempt by statute, impair the obligation of a contract within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.

    A further contention is made that the legatees or devisees of the remainders created by the will of David Dows, Jr., are not legally subject to taxation until the precedent estates terminate and the remainders vest in possession.

    The court of appeals held that the doctrine invoked had no application to the remainders given to the sons of David Dows, Jr.; that they are absolute, and not subject to be devested, or to fail in any contingency whatever; that by statute they are alienable, devisable, descendible, and if the property were real estate, they could be sold on execution against their owners; that by the aid of the table of annuities, upon the faith of which large sums are constantly distributed by the courts, the present value of these remainders is capable of ready [183 U.S. 278, 290]   computation; and that therefore they are subject to present taxation.

    These views of the court of appeals must be accepted by us as accurate statements of the law of the state; and though it is claimed in the brief of counsel for the plaintiffs in error that such a construction of the transfer-tax law brings it into conflict with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, we are unable to approve such a contention. The subject dealt with is one of state law expounded by state courts. The laws and the construction put upon them apply equally to all persons in a like situation, and cannot be regarded as conflicting with the provisions of the Federal Constitution. Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Sav. Bank, 170 U.S. 283 , 42 L. ed. 1037, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 594.

    Other contentions made in the brief of counsel for the plaintiffs in error seem, so far as our jurisdiction is concerned, to be phases of those heretofore considered, and thereby disposed of.

    The judgment of the Court of Appeals of the state of New York affirming the judgment of the Surrogate's Court of New York county is affirmed.

    Mr. Justice Harlan concurs in the result.

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