|Stearns v. Minnesota
[ Brewer ]
[ White ]
Stearns v. Minnesota
ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA
MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.
The Supreme Court of Minnesota held that the contract alleged to have been made with the railroad companies for a percent of the gross receipts in lieu of all taxation upon their property was, in view of the provisions of sections 1 and 3 of article 9 of the state constitution, one beyond the power of the legislature to make. We quote from its opinion:
The language of the constitution is clear, exact and imperative. It requires that all property not exempt must be taxed, and that the basis of such taxation must be the cash value of the property.
* * * *
It may be true, as claimed, that a gross earnings tax (if subject to amendment) is only another mode of arriving at equal taxation, and that such a system of commuted taxation of the [p231] property of railway companies and similar corporations is of great practical and material advantage to the State; but the fact remains that the taxation of all property upon the basis of its cash value was the sole rule ordained by the constitution to secure equality and uniformity of taxation.
* * * *
We hold that the statutes under which it is claimed that the lands in question are exempt from taxation in the ordinary way, upon the basis of their cash valuation, were unconstitutional when enacted, and remained so until validated by the constitutional amendment of 1871. The legal effect of such amendment was to validate them. State v. Luther, 6 Minnesota 16.
But this ratification or validation of the statutes was a qualified one, and the right to repeal or amend them was reserved by necessary implication, provided such repeal or amendment was adopted and ratified by a majority of the electors.
Our conclusion is that Laws, 1895, chapter 168, does not impair the obligation of any contract between the State and railway companies, and that the lands here in question are taxable in the ordinary way, as other lands are taxable.
The Federal question thus suggested is the single one for consideration. Was there a valid contract created by the legislation providing for the taxation of all railroad property (lands included) on the basis of a percent of the gross earnings, which was impaired by the legislation of 1895 withdrawing the lands from this arrangement and directing their taxation according to their actual cash value? And, first, as to the St. Paul and Duluth Company: that a contract was attempted to be made is obvious. The State, as trustee, held certain swamp and railroad lands. It proposed to give them to the company, subject to taxation in a certain way, if the company would construct the railroad. The company accepted the proposition and constructed the road. Thus, if the parties were competent to enter into such an arrangement, a contract was made. While some of the lands, the swamp lands, were granted to the State for a purpose other than railroad construction, they were granted in trust, and it has long since been settled that Congress alone [p232] can inquire into the manner in which the State executed that trust and disposed of the lands. Emigrant Co. v. County of Adams, 100 U.S. 61, 69.
With respect to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, the facts are slightly different, but the state legislation in respect to it was of a character to place its land grant in the same condition, so far as the question of contract is concerned. For the land grant to the company became operative within the limits of a State only when such State consented to the construction of the road. The power to consent carried with it the power to determine the conditions upon which such consent should be granted, and when the State of Minnesota said that the Northern Pacific Railroad Company might construct its road through the State, and might accept the provisions of the congressional grant, and prescribed the conditions upon which such road should be constructed and such grant should be taken, the effect of such legislation is the same as though the State received the grant and transferred it to the company on those conditions. It said in substance that, though the land was not given to the State to be transferred to a railroad company (and, in that case, the State might have prescribed the conditions of the transfer), it was given to the company subject to the assent of the State, and the State's assent to the gift was upon the conditions it named. The offer thus made by the State was accepted, and, in reliance thereon, the road was constructed.
Of course, withdrawing any portion of the property protected by the three percent commutation and subjecting that to ordinary taxation, leaving the three percent still due from the railroad companies, changes materially the terms of the alleged contract, so that there can be no question that, if there were a valid contract created by the earlier legislation, the act of 1895 impairs its obligation. The general rule of this court is to accept the construction of a state constitution placed by the state Supreme Court as conclusive. One exception which has been constantly recognized is when the question of contract is presented. This court has always held that the competency of a State, through its legislation, to make an alleged contract, and the meaning and validity of such contract, were matters which, [p233] in discharging its duty under the Federal Constitution, it must determine for itself, and while the leaning is towards the interpretation placed by the state court, such leaning cannot relieve us from the duty of an independent judgment upon the question of contract or no contract.
In Douglas v. Kentucky, 168 U.S. 488, this question was considered at length, and, by Mr. Justice Harlan, after a review of some prior cases, the conclusion was thus stated (p. 502):
The doctrine that this court possesses paramount authority when reviewing the final judgment of a state court upholding a state enactment alleged to be in violation of the contract clause of the Constitution, to determine for itself the existence or nonexistence of the contract set up, and whether its obligation has been impaired by the state enactment, has been affirmed in numerous other cases. Ohio Life Ins. Co. v. Debolt, 16 How. 416, 452; Wright v. Nagle, 101 U.S. 791, 794; Louisville Gas Co. v. Citizens' Gas Co., 115 U.S. 683, 697; Vicksburg, Shreveport &c. Railroad v. Dennis, 116 U.S. 665, 667; N. O. Waterworks Co. v. Louisiana Sugar Co., 125 U.S. 18, 36; Bryan v. Board of Education, 151 U.S. 639, 650; Mobile & Ohio Railroad v. Tennessee, 153 U.S. 486, 493; Bacon v. Texas, 163 U.S. 207, 219.
As a preliminary matter, it is worthy of note that the alleged invalidity of this contract in respect to taxation was not complained of for thirty years. Whether the revenues of the State were benefited or injured by this method of taxation, we are not advised, but it does appear that neither party challenged it. Both the railroads and the State accepted and acted under it for nearly a third of a century. It may be well to notice the decisions of the Supreme Court of Minnesota prior to the one challenged in this proceeding. In Railroad Company v. Parcher, 14 Minnesota 22, it appeared that a railroad charter had been granted by the territorial legislature, containing, among other things, a provision similar to the one in question, commuting all taxes on the basis of thee percent on the gross earnings. [p234] The company having defaulted in its contract, foreclosure proceedings were had, and its property, franchises, etc., were bought in by the State. All this was done in pursuance of express statutory provisions. Thereafter, an act was passed transferring to a new corporation all the property, franchises, etc., acquired by this foreclosure, and the question presented was whether this new company was entitled to the three percent commutation. And it was held that it was. The opinion of the court was that,
by the foreclosure proceedings, the State acquired, without any merger, all the franchises and privileges held by the territorial corporation, and that it could transfer them to a new corporation of its own creation. We do not stop to question the argument of the Supreme Court to the effect that there was no merger. All that we deem necessary to notice is that the State, by the foreclosure proceedings, acquired title to property -- railroad property, including lands granted to aid in construction -- and, having that property, . . . could dispose of it free from any limitations imposed by the constitutional provisions which are now referred to as invalidating the present alleged contract. In other words, the State could take and dispose of lands upon precisely the same terms
upon which it took and disposed of the lands to the present plaintiffs in error.
This decision was recognized and reaffirmed in St. Paul v. Railroad Company,, 23 Minnesota 469, 475, in which it was said:
Upon the renewal of the grant, in 1864, to the present company, it was therefore clearly competent for the legislature to change and modify its terms and conditions, so as to require the annual payment of a different rate percent of the gross earnings of the road, to commence upon the completion of thirty, instead of fifty, miles, and, in consideration of such annual payment, to exempt the railroad, its appurtenances, and other property, from all taxation, and from all assessments, both general and local. This modification of the original contract was prohibited by no provision of the constitution, and the enactment of March 4, 1864, in this regard has not only been uniformly recognized and acted upon ever since as valid by both the executive and legislative departments of the state government, but, by an express constitutional [p235] amendment, adopted in 1871, it has been placed beyond the reach of any amendment or repeal, except by a law ratified by a vote of the electors of the State.
See also County of Stevens v. Railway Company, 36 Minnesota 467, 470, in which is this declaration:
That the exemption from ordinary taxation created in 1857 in favor of the Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company, subsequently passed with the lands, and as a right appendant thereto, to the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company and to the First Division of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, may be now accepted without question. It was so decided eighteen years ago in the case of the last-named company v. Parcher, 14 Minn. 224, 297, which decision has been ever since followed. State v. Winona & St. Peter R.R. Co., 21 Minn. 315; Minnesota Central Ry. Co. v. Melvin, id., 339; Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Ry. Co. v. Pfaender, 23 Minn. 217; City of St. Paul v. St. Paul & Sioux City R.R. Co., id., 475; County of Nobles v. Sioux City & St. Paul R.R. Co., 26 Minn. 394; State v. Northern Pacific R.R. Co., 32 Minn. 294.
And also State v. Luther, 56 Minnesota 156, 162, 163, 164, decided 1894, in which the court said:
The system of providing for the payment of a percentage of the gross earnings of the road in lieu of all other taxes on "railroad property" and on the lands granted to aid in its construction, while owned by the company, was inaugurated by the territorial legislatures, and was universally in vogue at the date of the adoption of the constitution.
And after that date, the state legislatures invariably assumed that they continued to possess the power to adopt this system of commuted taxation when granting lands to aid in the construction of a railroad, whether such lands were the absolute property of the State or were held by it in trust for that purpose under an act of Congress. This was the practice not only as to old grants made before the adoption of the constitution, but also as to new grants, both state and congressional, made after that date.
And then, after referring to a number of grants by Congress and the State, added: [p236]
In brief, the legislature assumed that, when making a grant of lands to aid the building of a railway, or in executing the trust where lands had been granted to the State by Congress for the same purpose (and which, while thus held by the State either as proprietor or in trust, were, of course, not subject to taxation), it had the power, in the furtherance of the object for which the grant was made, to exempt such lands from ordinary taxation and to provide for commuted taxation of both the railroad and the granted lands.
There is not in the history of the State a single grant of lands to aid in the building of a railway where this system of commuted taxation has not been adopted, and we have not found an instance, prior to the adoption of the constitutional amendment of 1871 (Const. Art. 4, sec. 32a) where a commuted system of taxation was provided that did not apply to a land grant as well as to the railroad property. This amounted to a legislative construction of the constitution which, of itself, would be entitled to great weight.
It would seem from these decisions to have been the settled law of the State that it could, after the adoption of the constitution of 1858, acquire title to lands and dispose of them subject to the same conditions under which the lands in controversy were granted to the plaintiffs in error.
In McHenry v. Alford, 168 U.S. 651, legislation of the Territory of Dakota providing for the taxation of the lands of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company on the basis of a percentage of the gross earnings of the railroad company was held not in conflict with the mandate in the organic act that no law
shall be passed impairing the rights of private property; nor shall any discrimination be made in taxing different kinds of property; but all property subject to taxation shall be in proportion to the value of the property taxed.
While the language of this organic act is not the same as that of the Minnesota constitution, in that the Minnesota constitution, by implication, requires the taxation of all property except that by its terms, specifically exempted, and this act makes no provision in respect to the matter of exemption, yet, in respect to property subject to taxation it, like the Minnesota constitution, requires taxation [p237] in proportion to the value of the property taxed. It is doubtless true that it has been held that forbidding an exemption from taxation and requiring taxation according to the "true value in money" forbids taxation otherwise than in accordance with established general rules in respect to valuation, and prevents a commutation on a different basis; yet there have been rulings of the Supreme Court of Minnesota to the effect that commutation is not the same as exemption, or forbidden by a constitutional provision which forbids exemption, and that it may sometimes be the surest way of reaching taxation according to the "true value in money," and is, therefore, not necessarily an infringement of a constitutional provision requiring such taxation. Thus, in County of Hennepin v. Railway Company, 33 Minnesota 534, 535, the court said:
This is not an immunity from taxation, but a commutation of taxes -- another and substituted way prescribed by law in which the respondent, as the owner of this land among other property, is to contribute its share to the public revenue.
And in County of Ramsey v. Railway Company, 33 Minnesota 537, 542:
It was not in reality a plan for exempting property from taxation, but a substituted method of taxation. It must be supposed that it was contemplated that this system would, upon the whole, fairly effect the objects of taxation with respect to such corporations, and be equivalent in its results to taxation of the property owned by them.
So also, in County of Todd v. Railway Company, 38 Minnesota 163, 165:
It has been considered that the purpose of such statutes has been not to exempt property from taxation, but to provide a substituted method of securing to the State its proper revenue from the taxable property of these corporations. City of St. Paul v. St. Paul & Sioux City R.R. Co., 23 Minn. 469; County of Hennepin v. St. Paul, M. & M. Ry. Co., 33 Minn. 534, 535; County of Ramsey v. Chicago, Mil.. & St. Paul Ry. Co., supra.
And further, in St. Paul v. Railway Company, 39 Minnesota 112, 113: [p238]
As was said in Ramsey County v. Chicago, Mil. & St. Paul Railway, supra, these charters do not exempt the property from taxes, but provide a substituted method of taxation, based upon the assumption that the property of the companies will be used for railroad purposes, and thereby an income be derive, the percentage of which received by the State will be equivalent in its results to taxation of the property.
And again, in State v. Luther, 6 Minnesota 156, 160:
It is a common error, in construing statutes like the present, to assume that, because the commuted tax is fixed with reference to, and is wholly derived from, the gross earnings of the road, therefore the lands are exempted from taxation altogether. The percentage of the gross earnings is paid as taxes on both the railroad and the granted lands, and, although derived wholly from the former, is a commutation tax alike on both.
The contract made in 1865 with the predecessor of the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Company, void at that time but made valid by the constitutional amendment of 1871 (as by the Supreme Court of the State now affirmed), commuted the taxes on all railroad properties, including its lands not used for railroad purposes, by the payment of three percent on its gross earnings. Confessedly, after that amendment, there existed a binding contract between the State and the railroad companies by which the taxes on all their property were to be commuted and discharged on the payment of three percent of the gross earnings. If nothing had since occurred, that contract, under the decision of the Supreme Court, would continue exempting lands not used, as well as lands used for railroad purposes, from any other taxation than that which was expressed by three percent on the gross earnings of the companies. In other words, so far as the railroad companies are concerned, that constitutional amendment did away with the restrictive features of sections 1 and 3 of Article IX in the state constitution, and permitted and endorsed a peculiar method of taxation of railroad companies. The constitutional amendment of 1871 forbade any change by repeal or amendment of laws respecting the taxation of railroad companies except upon a vote of the people. The converse of that proposition may be accepted, to-wit, that by a vote of [p239] the people the tax provision concerning railroads might be repealed or amended. But is there no limitation upon the power of amendment? The law of 1895 adopted by the people does not release railroad companies from the burden of paying three percent upon their gross earnings into the state treasury, but simply operates to put certain properties belonging to them outside of the protection of that commutation. Was such an amendment within the contemplation of the constitutional provision of 1871? It may seem a not unreasonable modification to exempt from the contract such property as is not used for railroad purposes, but would not the legislation assume a different aspect if it had subjected to ordinary taxation all the railroad property, except locomotives, and upon them continued the burden of the payment of three percent of the gross earnings? Of course, if there be no limitations in respect to the scope of amendment, it would be within the power of the State to subject the bulk of the railroad property, whether used or not used for railroad purposes, to the burden of ordinary state taxation, and taking a single item like locomotives, without which the road could not be operated, continue upon the companies the duty of paying three percent of the gross earnings. While it may be that no such inconsiderate action is to be expected, the possibility of such action suggests a query whether the power of repeal or amendment, preserved by the constitutional amendment of 1871, has not some limitations.
Giving to that power full scope, it may be said that, if the prior legislation was unauthorized by the constitution, a repeal of the amendment would wipe out the whole provision in reference to railroad taxation and subject all railroad property within the limits of the State to the ordinary rule in respect to taxation. So it may be that the reserved power of amendment carries with it the right to increase or diminish the rate percent of taxation. But a different question is presented when it is insisted that the power of amendment carries with it the right of continuing the rate percent as to part only, but not all, of the property covered by the original contract, or, as stated, if the State can withdraw the lands not used for railroad purposes from the scope of this contract commutation, can it [p240] not tomorrow likewise withdraw the lands which are used for railroad purposes, including therein the right of way, the tracks thereon, all the grounds occupied by stationhouses, etc., and then, on the day thereafter, withdraw from it all the personal property of the companies, except their locomotives, and still hold the corporations to the burden of the contract? May it not be fairly contended that the privilege of amendment reserved was as to the rate, and not as to the property to be included within the commutation? That the power of amendment has its limitations, or rather that an amendment may not be wholly as to the right of the State, and absolutely ignoring the right of the other party to the contract, has been adjudged by this court in Louisville Water company v. Clark, 143 U.S. 1. In that case, it was held that, while, under a statute, the water company had been exempted from taxation on condition that it supplied water free to the city of Louisville, an act withdrawing that exemption from taxation, although silent as to the corresponding obligation of the water company, must be construed as releasing it from an obligation based upon such exemption. So it may well be said in the case before us that a contractual exemption of the property of the railroad company in whole, upon consideration of a certain payment, cannot be changed by the State so as to continue the obligation in full, and at the same time deny to the company, either in whole or in part, the exemption conferred by the contract.
But there is another matter of significance. The lands in controversy were granted by Congress to the State as trustee. The act of 1865, by which the State offered the lands to the predecessor of the St. Paul and Duluth Company, is entitled "An act to execute the trust created by the act of Congress." The right of a State to accept such a trust cannot now be doubted. It has become a part of the judicial history of the country. These lands were not donated by Congress to the State to be used by it for its own benefit and in its own way, but were conveyed to the State in trust with the understanding that, as trustee, it should use them in the best possible manner for accomplishing the purposes of the trust. Of course, this implied that, except as restrained by its own powers, the [p241] State should make the grant as valuable as possible for the accomplishment of the purpose of the trust. Under those circumstances, the peculiar nature of the trust created enabled the State to determine the limits and mode of taxation to which that property thus placed in its hands should be subjected. It might have provided that the title be retained by the State, that no conveyance be made to the railroad company, and that the first and only conveyance should be when the railroad company had made a contract with some individual for its purchase, and that contract had been completed by full payment to the company. Is it to be doubted that the State, retaining the title, although authorizing the railroad company to sell, could, while that title was so retained, hold it free from any kind of taxation? Would it not be a legitimate and appropriate discharge of the trust conferred if the State adjudged that such property should be held in its own name free from all taxation until such time as its full value in cash could be obtained from some individual? If the State could retain the title free from taxation until such time as its disposition to a private purchaser enabled the railroad company to realize the full value of the land, was it not also within its power to say that a temporary transfer to the corporation charged with the duty of constructing the railroad should also be accompanied by a like exemption from taxation? And if it could exempt from all taxation, it might with equal propriety say that it should be subjected to taxation in only a limited way.
Of course, it may be said, and in a general way rightfully so, that the powers of the legislature of a State are limited by its constitutional provisions. It follows therefrom that, in dealing with property generally, the legislature must, in respect to taxation, as in all other matters, keep within the express constitutional limits as interpreted by the highest court of the State. We would not weaken, even if we had authority so to do, the full scope of this constitutional obligation. Whatever the people, framing their organic act, have declared to be the limits of legislative power and the modes in which that power shall be exercised must always be recognized by the courts, state and national, as obligatory. And if the property in controversy was [p242] that which passed directly into the mass of the general property of the State, it might properly be said that the construction placed on constitutional limitations by the Supreme Court of the State determined absolutely for all courts, state and national, the full scope of the legislative power.
And, in this respect, we may notice the suggestion of the Supreme Court of the State that other lands than these might be withdrawn from the general rule of taxation provided by the state constitution, and the statement made by counsel in argument that many corporations had received in the early days of the State commutations based on a like principle. We quote the language of the Supreme Court:
It is further claimed on behalf of the appellants that the mandates and inhibitions of the constitution as to the taxation of all private property have no application to public lands which passed into private ownership with the privilege of commuted taxation created with respect to them while they were yet public lands. If this proposition is true, then the legislature, if there are no other constitutional provisions prohibiting it, may provide for exempting from taxation the school lands of the State after their sale and after they have become absolutely private property, or provide that the owners thereof may forever pay a percentage on the gross or net income derived therefrom in lieu of all other taxes.
The mandate of the constitution applies to all property which is the subject of private ownership, without reference to the source of its acquisition. It would be a palpable evasion of the constitution to permit the legislature to absolutely transfer public lands to private owners vested with the privileges and immunities as to taxation which are prohibited by the constitution.
We think the apprehension of the Supreme Court is one more of imagination than of fact. It is true that Congress might act so as, in effect, to keep withdrawn a large area of the State from taxation. Under the reservation in the act of admission and the acceptance thereof by the State of Minnesota, the right of Congress to determine the disposition of public lands within that State was reserved, and, according to the decision in Van [p243] Brocklin v. State of Tennessee, infra, lands belonging to the United States are exempt from taxation by the State. So that, if Congress should determine that the great body of public lands within the State of Minnesota should be reserved from sale for an indefinite period, it might do so, and thus the lands be exempted from taxation, and yet it cannot be imputed to Congress that it would discriminate against the State of Minnesota or pass any legislation detrimental to its interests. It had the power to withdraw all the public lands in Minnesota from private entry or public grant, and, exercising that power, it might prevent the State of Minnesota from taxing a large area of its lands, but no such possibility of wrong conduct on the part of Congress can enter into the consideration of this question. It is to be expected that it will deal with Minnesota as with other States, and in such a way as to subserve the best interests of the people of that State. That a power may be injuriously exercised is no reason for a misconstruction of the scope and extent of that power. So the fact that Congress might, if it saw fit, withdraw the public lands in Minnesota from sale, and thus prevent their taxation, furnishes no reason for denying the efficacy of the power to grant such lands, subject to conditions binding upon the State, or the right of the State, as its trustee, to prescribe limitations upon taxation. And this must be said bearing in mind that, to the full extent, there is no question of the duty of the legislature of Minnesota to subject any but trust property to the absolute scope of its constitutional provisions in respect to the matter of taxation. And, in respect to the lands in controversy, it must be remembered that they were granted to and accepted by the State in trust, and it cannot be doubted that the State has the power to compel its grantee to use the lands in furtherance of the trust, and prevent it from creating a large and permanent ownership of lands.
When Minnesota was admitted into the Union, and admitted on the basis of full equality with all other States, there was within its limits a large amount of lands belonging to the national government. The enabling act, February 6, 1857, 11 Stat. 166, authorizing the inhabitants of Minnesota to form a constitution and a state government, tendered certain propositions [p244] to the people of the Territory, coupled in section 5 with this proviso (11 Stat. 167):
The foregoing propositions herein offered are on the condition that the said convention which shall form the constitution of said State shall provide, by a clause in said Constitution, or an ordinance, irrevocable without the consent of the United States, that said State shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil within the same, by the United States, or with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in said soil to bona fide purchasers thereof, and that no tax shall be imposed on lands belonging to the United States, and that, in no case shall nonresident proprietors be taxed higher than residents.
And article 2, section 3, of the constitution, passed by virtue of this enabling act, reads as follows (Gen.Stat.Minn. 1894, p. lxxiv):
The propositions contained in the act of Congress entitled "An act to authorize the people of the Territory of Minnesota to form a constitution and state government preparatory to their admission into the Union on an equal footing with the original States," are hereby accepted, ratified and confirmed, and shall remain irrevocable without the consent of the United States, and it is hereby ordained that this State shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil within the same, by the United States, or with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title to said soil to bona fide purchasers thereof, and no tax shall be imposed on lands belonging to the United States, and in no case shall nonresident proprietors be taxed higher than residents.
That these provisions of the enabling act and the constitution, in form at least, made a compact between the United States and the State is evident. In an inquiry as to the validity of such a compact, this distinction must at the outset be noticed. There may be agreements or compacts attempted to be entered into between two States, or between a State and the nation, in reference to political rights and obligations, and there may be those solely in reference to property belonging to one or the other. That different considerations may underlie the question [p245] as to the validity of these two kinds of compacts or agreements is obvious. It has often been said that a State admitted into the Union enters therein in full equality with all the others, and such equality may forbid any agreement or compact limiting or qualifying political rights and obligations; whereas, on the other hand, a mere agreement in reference to property involves no question of equality of status, but only of the power of a State to deal with the nation or with any other State in reference to such property. The case before us is one involving simply an agreement as to property between a State and the nation.
That a State and the nation are competent to enter into an agreement of such a nature with one another has been affirmed in past decisions of this court, and that they have been frequently made in the admission of new States, as well as subsequently thereto, is a matter of history. Section 10 of article 1 of the Constitution provides that "no State shall, without the consent of Congress, . . . enter into any agreement or compact with another State." It was early ruled that these negative words carried with them no denial of the power of two States to enter into a compact or agreement with one another, but only placed a condition upon the exercise of such power. Thus, in Green v. Biddle, 8 Wheat. 1, a compact between Virginia and Kentucky was sustained, and it was held no valid objection to it that, within certain restrictions, it limited the legislative power of the State of Kentucky. In Poole v. Fleeger, 11 Pet. 185, an agreement between Kentucky and Tennessee as to boundary was upheld, Mr. Justice Story, speaking for the court, saying (p. 209):
It cannot be doubted that it is a part of the general right of sovereignty, belonging to independent nations, to establish and fix the disputed boundaries between their respective territories, and the boundaries so established and fixed by compact between nations become conclusive upon all the subjects and citizens thereof, and bind their rights, and are to be treated, to all intents and purposes, as the true and real boundaries. This is a doctrine universally recognized in the law and practice of nations. It is a right equally belonging to the States of this [p246] Union, unless it has been surrendered under the Constitution of the United States. So far from there being any pretense of such a general surrender of the right, that it is expressly recognized by the Constitution and guarded in its exercise by a single limitation or restriction requiring the consent of Congress. The Constitution declares that "no State shall, without the consent of Congress, enter into any agreement or compact with another State," thus plainly admitting that, with such consent, it might be done, and, in the present instance, that consent has been expressly given. The compact, then, has full validity, and all the terms and conditions of it must be equally obligatory upon the citizens of both States.
The same doctrine was announced in Virginia v. Tennessee, 148 U.S. 503, and, in the opinion in that case, it was intimated that there were many matters in respect to which the different States might agree without the formal consent of Congress. In this case, the difference between the agreements which States might enter into between one another and those from which they were debarred without the consent of Congress was noticed, and it was said (p. 518):
There are many matters upon which different States may agree that can in no respect concern the United States. If, for instance, Virginia should come into possession and ownership of a small parcel of land in New York which the latter State might desire to acquire as a site for a public building, it would hardly he deemed essential for the latter State to obtain the consent of Congress before it could make a valid agreement with Virginia for the purchase of the land. If Massachusetts, in forwarding its exhibits to the World's Fair at Chicago, should desire to transport them a part of the distance over the Erie Canal, it would hardly be deemed essential for that State to obtain the consent of Congress before it could contract with New York for the transportation of the exhibits through that State in that way. If the bordering line of two States should cross some malarious and disease-producing district, there could be no possible reason, on any conceivable public grounds, to obtain the consent of Congress for the bordering States to agree to unite in draining the district, and thus removing the cause of [p247] disease. So in case of threatened invasion of cholera, plague, or other causes of sickness and death, it would be the height of absurdity to hold that the threatened States could not unite in providing means to prevent and repel the invasion of the pestilence without obtaining the consent of Congress, which might not be at the time in session. If, then, the terms "compact" or "agreement" in the Constitution do not apply to every possible compact or agreement between one State and another, for the validity of which the consent of Congress must be obtained, to what compacts or agreements does the Constitution apply? . . .
Looking at the clause in which the terms "compact" or "agreement" appear, it is evident that the prohibition is directed to the formation of any combination tending to the increase of political power in the States which may encroach upon or interfere with the just supremacy of the United States. Story, in his Commentaries, sec. 1403, referring to a previous part of the same section of the Constitution in which the clause in question appears, observes that its language
may be more plausibly interpreted from the terms used, "treaty, alliance or confederation," and upon the ground that the sense of each is best known by its association (noscitur a sociis) to apply to treaties of a political character, such as treaties of alliance for purposes of peace and var, and treaties of confederation, in which the parties are leagued for mutual government, political cooperation, and the exercise of political sovereignty, and treaties of cession of sovereignty, or conferring internal political jurisdiction, or external political dependence, or general commercial privileges;
the latter clause, "compacts and agreements," might then very properly apply to such as regarded what might be deemed mere private rights of sovereignty, such as questions of boundary, interests in land situate in the territory of each other, and other internal regulations for the mutual comfort and convenience of States bordering on each other.
And he adds:
In such cases, the consent of Congress may be properly required, in order to check any infringement of the rights of the national government; and, at the same time, a total prohibition to enter [p248] into any compact or agreement might be attended with permanent inconvenience or public mischief.
If, as "a part of the general right of sovereignty" to which Mr. Justice Story refers in the quotation above made, the right of agreement between one another belongs to the several States, except as limited by the constitutional provisions requiring the consent of Congress, equally true is it that a State may make a compact with all the States, constituting as one body the nation, possessed of general rights of sovereignty and represented by Congress. That Congress has consented is shown by the fact that it proposed the terms of the agreement and declared the State admitted on its assent to those terms.
The Constitution, article 1, section 8, provides that --
The Congress shall have power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the State in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards and other needful buildings.
By an act of February 22, 1875, the legislature of Kansas ceded to the United States jurisdiction over the territory of the Fort Leavenworth Military Reservation, reserving not only the right to serve civil and criminal process, but also the right to tax railroad, bridge and other corporations, their franchises and property, within the limits of the reservation. And in Fort Leavenworth Railroad Company v. Lowe, 114 U.S. 525, that cession was held valid, Mr. Justice Field, delivering the opinion of the court, saying in reference to this question (p. 541):
In their relation to the general government, the States of the Union stand in a very different position from that which they hold to foreign governments. Though the jurisdiction and authority of the general government are essentially different from those of the State, they are not those of a different country, and the two, the state and general government, may deal with each other in any way they may deem best to carry out the purposes of the Constitution. [p249]
The act admitting Kansas into the Union contained in its first section this provision (19 Stat. 17):
That nothing contained in the said Constitution respecting the boundary of said State shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in said territory, so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians, or to affect the authority of the government of the United States to make any regulation respecting such Indians, their lands, property or other rights, by treaty, law or otherwise, which it would have been competent to make if this act had never been passed.
Under the provisions of the treaty of 1854 between the Shawnee Indians residing within the territory of Kansas and the United States, certain of their lands were allotted to individual members and patented to them, with the express restriction that "the said lands shall never be sold by the grantee, or his heirs, without the consent of the Secretary of the Interior." In the case of The Kansas Indians, 5 Wall. 737, 757, this court, holding a law of the State of Kansas subjecting these lands to taxation invalid, said:
There can be no question of state sovereignty in the case, as Kansas accepted her admission into the family of States on condition that the Indian rights should remain unimpaired, and the general government at liberty to make any regulation respecting them, their lands, property or other rights, which it would have been competent to make if Kansas had not been admitted into the Union. . . . While the general government has a superintending care over their interests, and continues to treat with them as a nation, the State of Kansas is estopped from denying their title to it. She accepted this status when she accepted the act admitting her into the Union.
See also Beecher v. Wetherby, 95 U.S. 517, 523.
But we need not go outside of the present case. The State of Minnesota accepted the trust created by the act of Congress. Acceptance by a trustee of the obligations created by the donor of a trust completes a contract. Such contracts, as we have seen, have been frequent in the history of the nation, and their [p250] validity has not only never been questioned, but has been directly affirmed. Tucker v. Ferguson, 22 Wall. 527.
There is nothing in the case of Van Brocklin v. State of Tennessee, 117 U.S. 151, in conflict with these views. In that case, it was held that property of the United States situated within the limits of a State was exempt by the Constitution of the United States from taxation by that State, and while, referring to the many exemption clauses in different acts of admission of States, it was said that they were but declaratory of the law, and conferred no new right or power on the United States, it was not held that, if in the absence of such exemption clauses, the lands of the United States would have been subject to taxation, the compact thereby created would not have been operative to relieve them. And it must be remembered that the question here is not as to exemption, but as to full control over the matter of sale and disposal.
Returning, then, to the facts of the case before us, by the provisions quoted, the State expressly agreed that no tax should be imposed on lands belonging to the United States, that it should never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil within the State by the United States, or with any regulations Congress might find necessary for securing the soil to bona fide purchasers thereof. These provisions are not to be construed narrowly or technically, but as expressing a consent on the part of the State to the terms proposed by Congress, and among these terms were that the full control of the disposition of the lands of the United States should be free from state action. Whether Congress should sell or donate; what terms it should impose upon the sale or donation; what arrangements it should make for securing title to the beneficiaries -- were all matters withdrawn from state interference by the terms of the enabling act and the Constitution. With this full reservation of power in Congress, it is not open to doubt that that body might have made such disposition of the public lands of the United States within the State as would withhold them from the burdens of state taxation, not only until such time as all interest of the United States in the lands had ceased, but also until they had been used to fully accomplish the purposes for which Congress was selling or donating them. [p251]
It is true, as has been held in the ordinary administration of the affairs of the land department, that, whenever full payment has been made to the United States, and the full equitable title has passed to an individual purchaser or homesteader, the mere delay in furnishing to such purchaser or homesteader the legal evidence of his title does not relieve the land from ordinary state taxation. Carroll v. Safford,, 3 How. 441; Witherspoon v. Duncan, 4 Wall. 210; Wisconsin Central R.R. Co. v. Price County, 133 U.S. 496; Northern Pacific R.R. Co. v. Patterson, 154 U.S. 130.
But it has also been held that, until the very last moment that liens or equitable rights of the United States are extinguished, no matter how trivial or small may be the right or the lien reserved, the land is not subject to state taxation. Railway Company v. Prescott, 16 Wall. 603; Railway Company v. McShane, 22 Wall. 444; Colorado Company v. Commissioners, 95 U.S. 259; Northern Pacific R.R. Co. v. Traill County, 115 U.S. 600; Wisconsin Central R.R. Co. v. Price County, 133 U.S. 496.
But whatever may be the rule applicable in the ordinary administration of affairs in the land department, the provisions of the enabling act and the state constitution, before referred to, secure to the United States full control of the disposition of the public lands within the limits of the State. Within the scope of this reserved power, Congress might grant to a railroad corporation public lands to aid in the construction of its road, withholding not only the legal title, but also exemption from state taxation until such time as someone should pay into the treasury of the company the full value of the land in money to be used in the construction of its road. It would be a part of the power reserved in Congress to determine the terms and conditions upon which title should effectually pass from the government. If Congress has a right to make a private corporation its agent to thus utilize to the fullest extent the value of the land it is willing to give to aid a public enterprise, it may deal with a State upon the same basis. The State, accepting the trust given by Congress, has all the powers of a trustee, and must have also all the freedom of a trustee, and may determine in what way that [p252] trust may be most successfully carried out. The mere fact that the legal title has passed by act of Congress from the nation to the State is not the vital fact. Under section 3, article IX, of the state constitution, public property used exclusively for any public purpose is exempted from taxation. It is undoubtedly true as a general rule that a State does not tax its own property, but we do not rest on this express language of the state constitution. We place our conclusion upon higher grounds. Accepting this property as a trustee, as it had a right to do, it was not compelled to weaken the full accomplishment of that trust by subjection of the lands to taxation.
We do not mean to hold that it was bound to exempt the land, either permanently or for any specified time, from taxation if, in its judgment as trustee, it believed that the purpose of the trust could be otherwise fully and fairly accomplished, and to that extent, and no further, goes the opinion in Tucker v. Ferguson, supra. In that case, the State saw fit to tax the land after the lapse of a certain time, in respect to which Congress had prescribed an exemption, and it was said by Mr. Justice Swayne, on page 572:
She was in nowise fettered except as she had agreed to fulfill all the terms and conditions which accompanied the grant. To that extent, she was clearly bound, and anything in conflict with those conditions would be ultra vires, and cannot be supported. What were the terms to which she submitted herself? She was to devote the lands to the accomplishment of the object which Congress had in view, and there was an implied agreement on her part to take all the measures reasonably within her power to make their application effectual to that end. The mode was left entirely to herself. We see no ground upon which it can be claimed she bound herself any further.
But if, in its judgment as trustee, the trust could be most effectually accomplished by transferring the lands to some corporation, subject to only a limited taxation until such time as the full value of the lands could be secured for the purposes of the trust, it was not prevented from so doing by any obligation which it was under in respect to the general mass of property within the State. When the State accepted the position of [p253] trustee, it had all the freedom of judgment which belongs to a trustee in respect to the best means of carrying the trust into execution. The legislature was the body representing the State whose judgment was invoked as to such means, and its action was taken not so much in discharge of its constitutional obligations to the people as of its contract obligations as trustee to the grantor of the trust. In other words, the State either could not accept the trust or, accepting it, was entitled to all the freedom of judgment which attends the action of a trustee, and, as we have seen, it is too late in the history of railroad aid legislation in this country to hold that a State cannot accept the position of trustee of such a grant.
Congress, acting for the United States -- the owner of the lands -- could, by virtue of the compact with the State, have in creating the trust provided specifically for an exemption, or for taxation in a limited way. Having failed to so prescribe the manner in which the trust should be executed, the power became vested in the trustee, the State, and it exercised it in the way indicated by the legislation of 1865 and 1870. Having that power as trustee, it could make a valid contract in respect thereto with the corporations, and they, investing their money in the construction of the road on the faith of the contract tendered and accepted, are entitled to be protected against any subsequent legislative impairment in respect thereto.
For these reasons, we are of opinion that there was a valid contract made with these companies in respect to the taxation of these lands -- a contract which it was beyond the power of the State to impair; that this subsequent legislation does impair that contract, and cannot, therefore, be sustained.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Minnesota is reversed, except as to lands belonging to the Great Northern Railway Company, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
MR. JUSTICE BROWN concurred upon the ground that the legality of commuting the payment of taxes upon railway property by a payment of a percentage upon the gross earnings, having been recognized by the legislature and the Supreme [p254] Court of Minnesota for thirty years, and also having been recognized as valid in the constitutional amendment of 1871, it is too late to set up its repugnance to the state constitution as against railways which were built upon the faith of its validity.