SPENCER v. MERCHANT.

125 U.S. 345 (8 S.Ct. 921, 31 L.Ed. 763)

SPENCER v. MERCHANT.1

Decided: April 2, 1888

Statement of Case from pages 345-351 intentionally omitted

Albert Day and Matthew Hale, for plaintiff in error.

Walter E. Ward, for defendant in error.

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Mr. Justice GRAY, after stating the facts as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The leading facts of this case are as follows: The original assessment of the expenses of regulating, grading, and preparing the street for travel was laid by commissioners, as directed by section 4 of the statute of 1869, upon all the lands lying within 300 feet on either side of the street, and which, in the judgment of the commissioners, would be benefited by the improvement. After the sums so assessed upon some lots had been paid, the court of appeals of the state declared that assessment void, because the statute (although it made ample provision for notice of and hearing upon the previous assessment for laying out the street under section 3) provided no means by which the landowners might have any notice or opportunity to be heard in regard to the assessment for regulating, grading, and preparing the street for travel under section 4. Stuart v. Palmer, 74 N. Y. 183. The lots, the sums assessed upon which had not been paid, were isolated parcels, not contiguous, and some of them not fronting upon the street. By the statute of 1881, a sum equal to so much of the original assessment as remained unpaid, adding a proportional part of the expenses of making that assessment, and interest since, was ordered by the legislature to be levied and equitably apportioned by the supervisors of the county upon and among these lots, after public notice to all parties interested to appear and be heard upon the question of such apportionment; and that sum was levied and assessed accordingly upon these lots, one of which was owned by the plaintiff. The question submitted to the supreme court of the state was whether this assessment on the plaintiff's lot was valid. He contended that the statute of 1881 was unconstitutional and void, because it was an attempt by the legislature to validate a void assessment, without giving the owners of the lands assessed an opportunity to be heard upon the whole amount of the assessment. He thus directly, and in apt words, presented the question whether he had been unconstitutionally deprived of his property without due process of law, in violation of the first section of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States, as well as of article 1, § 7, Const. N. Y.; and no specific mention of either constitutional provision was nee ssary in order to entitle him to a decision of the question by any court having jurisdiction to determine it. The adverse judgment of the supreme court, affirmed by the court of appeals of the state, necessarily involved a decision against a right claimed under the fourteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States, which this court has jurisdiction to review. Bridge Prop'rs v. Hoboken Co., 1 Wall. 116, 142; Murray v. Charleston, 96 U. S. 432, 442; Furman v. Nichol. 8 Wall. 44, 56; Insurance Co. v. Needles, 113 U. S. 574, 579, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 681.

The jurisdiction of this court, as is well understood, does not extend to a review of the judgment of the state court, so far as it depended upon the constitution of the state. Institution for Savings v. Jersey City, 113 U. S. 506, 514, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 612. Yet, as the words of the two constitutions are alike in this respect, the decisions of the highest court of the state upon the effect of these words are entitled to great weight. The substance of the former decisions, and the grounds of the judgment sought to be reviewed, can hardly be more compactly or forcibly stated than they have been by Judge FINCH in delivering the opinion of the court of appeals, as follows: 'The act of 1881 determines absolutely and conclusively the amount of tax to be raised, and the property to be assessed, and upon which it is to be apportioned. Each of these things was within the power of the legislature, whose action cannot be reviewed in the courts upon the ground that it acted unjustly, or without appropriate and adequate reason. Litchfield v. Vernon, 41 N. Y. 123, 131; People v. Brooklyn, 4 N. Y. 427; People v. Flagg, 46 N. Y. 405; Horn v. New Lots, 83 N. Y. 100; Cooley, Tax'n, 450. The legislature may commit the ascertainment of the sum to be raised and of the benefited district to commissioners, but is not bound to do so, and may settle both questions for itself; and when it does so, its action is necessarily conclusive, and beyond review. Here an improvement has been ordered and made, the expense of which might justly have been imposed upon adjacent property benefited by the change. By the act of 1881, the legislature imposes the unpaid portion of the cost and expense, with the interest thereon, upon that portion of the property benefited which has thus far borne none of the burden. In so doing, it necessarily determines two things, viz., the amount to be realized, and the property specially benefited by the expenditure of that amount. The lands might have been benefited by the improvement; and so the legislative determination that they were, and to what amount or proportion of the cost, even if it may have been mistakenly unjust, is not open to our review. The question of special benefit, and the property to which it extends, is of necessity a question of fact; and, when the legislature determines it in a case within its general power, its decision must, of course, be final. We can see in the determination reached possible sources of error, and perhaps even of injustice; but we are not at liberty to say that the tax on the property covered by the law of 1881 was imposed without reference to special benefits. The legislature practically determined that the lands described in that act were peculiarly benefited by the improvement to a certain specified amount, which constituted a just proportion of the whole cost and expense; and, while it may be that the process by which the result was reached was not the best attainable, and some other might have been more accurate and just, we cannot for that reason question an enactment within the general legislative power. That power of taxation is unlimited, except that it must be exercised for public purposes. Weismer v. Douglas, 64 N. Y. 91. Certainly if the acts of 1869 and 1870 had never been passed, but the improvement of Atlantic avenue had been ordered, the legislature might have imps ed one part or proportion of the cost upon one designated district and the balance upon another. Practically just that was done in this case. In Re Van Antwerp, 56 N. Y. 261, an assessment for a street improvement had been declared void by reason of failure to procure necessary consents of property owners. The legislature made a reassessment, imposing two-thirds of the expense upon a benefited district, and one-third upon the city at large. The act was held valid as a new assessment, and not an effort to validate a void one. These views furnish also an answer to the objection that the only hearing given to the land-owner relates to the apportionment of the fixed amount among the lots assessed, and none is given as to the aggregate to be collected. No hearing would open the discretion of the legislature, or be of any avail to review or change it. A hearing is given by the act as to the apportionment among the land-owners, which furnishes to them an opportunity to raise all pertinent and available questions, and dispute their liability, or its amount and extent. The precise wrong of which complaint is made appears to be that the land-owners now assessed never had opportunity to be heard as to the original apportionment, and find themselves now practically bound by it as between their lots and those of the owners who paid. But that objection becomes a criticism upon the action of the legislature, and the process by which it determined the amount to be raised and the property to be assessed. Unless by special permission, that is a hearing never granted in the process of taxation. The legislature determines expenditures and amounts to be raised for their payment, the whole discussion and all questions of prudence and propriety and justice being confided to its jurisdiction. It may err, but the courts cannot review its discretion. In this case, it kept within its power when it fixed—First, the amount to be raised to discharge the improvement debt incurred by its direction; and, second, when it designated the lots and property which, in its judgment, by reason of special benefits, should bear the burden; and having the power, we cannot criticise the reasons or manner of its action. The land-owners were given a hearing, and so there was no constitutional objection in that respect. Nor was that hearing illusory. It opened to the land-owner an opportunity to assail the constitutional validity of the act under which alone an apportionment could be made, and that objection failing, it opened the only other possible questions of the mode and amounts of the apportionment itself. We think the act was constitutional.' 100 N. Y. 587-589, 3 N. E. Rep. 684. The general principles upon which that judgment rests have been affirmed by the decisions of this court.

The power to tax belongs exclusively to the legislative branch of the government. U. S. v. New Orleans, 98 U. S. 381, 392; Meriwether v. Garrett, 102 U. S. 472. In the words of Chief Justice CHASE, condensing what had been said long before by Chief Justice MARSHALL: 'The judicial department cannot prescribe to the legislative department limitations upon the exercise of its acknowledged powers. The power to tax may be exercised oppressively upon persons; but the responsibility of the legislature is not to the courts, but to the people, by whom its members are elected.' Bank v. Fenno, 8 Wall. 533, 548; McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 428; Bank v. Billings, 4 Pet. 514, 563. See, also, Kirtland v. Hotchkiss, 100 U. S. 491, 497. Whether the estimate of the value of land for the purpose of taxation exceeds its true value, this court on writ of error to a state court cannot inquire. Kelly v. Pittsburgh, 104 U. S. 78, 80. The legislature, in the exercise of its power of taxation, has the right to direct the whole or a part of the expense of a public improvement, such as the laying out, grading, or repairing of a street, to be assessed upon the owners of lands benefited h ereby; and the determination of the territorial district which should be taxed for a local improvement is within the province of legislative discretion. Willard v. Presbury, 14 Wall. 676; Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U. S. 97; Mobile Co. v. Kimball, 102 U. S. 691, 703, 704; Hagar v. Reclamation Dist., 111 U. S. 701, 4 Sup. Ct. Rep. 663. If the legislature provides for notice to and hearing of each proprietor at some stage of the proceedings, upon the question what proportion of the tax shall be assessed upon his land, there is no taking of his property without due process of law. McMillen v. Anderson, 95 U. S. 37; Davidson v. New Orleans, and Hagar v. Reclamation Dist., above cited. In Davidson v. New Orleans it was held that if the work was one which the state had the authority to do, and to pay for by assessments on the property benefited, objections that the sum raised was exorbitant, and that part of the property assessed was not benefited, presented no question under the fourteenth amendment to the constitution upon which this court could review the decision of the state court. 96 U. S. 100, 106.

In the absence of any more specific constitutional restriction than the general prohibition against taking property without due process of law, the legislature of the state, having the power to fix the sum necessary to be levied for the expense of a public improvement, and to order it to be assessed, either, like other taxes, upon property generally, or only upon the lands benefited by the improvement, is authorized to determine both the amount of the whole tax, and the class of lands which will receive the benefit, and should therefore bear the burden, although it may, if it sees fit, commit the ascertainment of either or both of these facts to the judgment of commissioners. When the determination of the lands to be benefited is intrusted to commissioners, the owners may be entitled to notice and hearing upon the question whether their lands are benefited, and how much. But the legislature has the power to determine, by the statute imposing the tax, what lands, which might be benefited by the improvement, are in fact benefited; and if it does so, its determination is conclusive upon the owners and the courts, and the owners have no right to be heard upon the question whether their lands are benefited or not, but only upon the validity of the assessment, and its apportionment among the different parcels of the class which the legislature has conclusively determined to be benefited. In determining what lands are benefited by the improvement, the legislature may avail itself of such information as it deems sufficient, either through investigations by its committees, or by adopting as its own the estimates or conclusions of others, whether those estimates or conclusions previously had or had not only legal sanction. In section 4 of the statute of 1869, the assessment under which was held void in Stuart v. Palmer, 74 N. Y. 183, for want of any provision whatever for notice or hearing, the authority to determine what lands, lying within 300 feet on either side of the street, were actually benefited, was delegated to commissioners. But in the statute of 1881 the legislature itself determined what lands were benefited and should be assessed. By this statute the legislature, in substance and effect, assumed that all the lands within the district defined in the statute of 1869 were benefited in a sum equal to the amount of the original assessment, the expense of levying it, and interest thereon; and determined that the lots upon which no part of that assessment had been paid, and which had therefore as yet borne no share of the burden, were benefited to the extent of a certain portion of this sum. That these lots as a whole had been benefited to this extent was conclusively settled by the legislature. The statute of 1881 afforded to the owners notice and hearing upon the question of the equt able apportionment among them of the sum directed to be levied upon all of them, and thus enabled them to contest the constitutionality of the statute; and that was all the notice and hearing to which they were entitled.

It is objected to the validity of the new assessment, that it included interest upon the unpaid part of the old assessment, and a proportionate part of the expense of levying that assessment. But, as to these items, the case does not substantially differ from what it would have been if a sum equal to the whole of the original assessment, including the expense of levying it, and adding the interest, had been ordered by the statute of 1881 to be levied upon all the lands within the district, allowing to each owner who had already paid his share of the original assessment a credit for the sum so paid by him, with interest from the time of payment. Judgment affirmed.

MATTHEWS, J., (dissenting.)

I am unable to agree with the judgment of the court in this case, and will state very briefly the ground of my dissent.

In Stuart v. Palmer, 74 N. Y. 183, the court of appeals of the state of New York declared the statute of the state of New York of 1869, c. 217, as amended by the statute of 1870, c. 619, and the assessment made in pursuance thereof, to be unconstitutional and void. In the opinion of the court in that case, delivered by EARL, J., and which was the unanimous opinion of the court, the ground of its judgment was stated as follows (p. 188:) 'I am of opinion that the constitution sanctions no law imposing such an assessment without a notice to, and a hearing, or an opportunity of hearing, by the owners of the property to be assessed. It is not enough that the owners may by chance have notice, or that they may, as a matter of favor, have a hearing. The law must require notice to them, and give them a right to a hearing, and an opportunity to be heard. It matters not, upon the question of the constitutionality of such a law, that the assessment has in fact been fairly apportioned. The constitutional validity of law is to be tested, not by what has been done under it, but by what may by its authority be done. The legislature may prescribe the kind of notice, and the mode in which it shall be given, but it cannot dispense with all notice.' And, on page 190, it was further said: 'The legislature can no more arbitrarily impose an assessment for which property may be taken and sold, than it can render a judgment against a person without a hearing. It is a rule founded upon the first principles of natural justice, older than written constitutions, that a citizen shall not be deprived of his life, liberty, or property, without an opportunity to be heard in defense of his rights, and the constitutional provision that no person shall be deprived of these 'without due process of law' has its foundation in this rule. This provision is the most important guaranty of personal rights to be found in the federal or state constitutions. It is a limitation upon an arbitrary power, and is a guaranty against arbitrary legislation. No citizen shall arbitrarily be deprived of his life, liberty, or property. This the legislature cannot do, nor authorize to be done. 'Due process of law' is not confined to judicial proceedings, but extends to every case which may deprive a citizen of life, liberty, or property; whether the proceeding be judicial, administrative, or executive in its nature. Weimer v. Bunbury, 30 Mich. 201. This great guaranty is always and everywhere present to protect the citizen against arbitrary interference with these sacred rights.' Accordingly, the assessment for the expense of regulating and grading the avenue under the act of 1869, as amended by the act of 1870, was declared null and void as against parties refusing to pay. Subsequently, by the statute of 1881, c. 689, the legislature of New York directed the levy to be made upon the lands, the assessment made upon which under the act of 1869 had been declard void, and canceled, of the same sum which had been assessed under the act of 1869, together with interest thereon to February 1, 1879, amounting to $8,293.33, and further interest thereon at 6 per cent. per annum from February 1, 1879, to the date of such levy. This act required the board of supervisors of Kings county to apportion this sum among the several parcels of land mentioned, after giving 10 days' notice of the time and place when they would meet to make such apportionment, to the parties interested in said lands, who should be entitled to be heard before the board upon the question of the apportionment. It is to be observed, however, that this apportionment is only to be made as between the lands in respect to which the prior assessment had been canceled as being void. The question of the original apportionment between those lands and the remaining lands, on which the owners had paid the first assessment, was not left open under the act of 1881. By this act, therefore, the owners of the lands in question were deprived of the opportunity of being heard upon the question whether the apportionment as between them and the other land-owners, embraced within the original assessment district for the same improvement, was equitable and fair. They were, therefore, deprived by the act of 1881 of the very thing of which they were deprived by the act of 1869, on account of which the court of appeals of New York held the latter act to be unconstitutional and void. It is impossible for me, therefore, to reconcile the opinion of the court of appeals of New York now under review and the opinion of the same court in the case of Stuart v. Palmer. The same objection applies to both statutes with equal force. As I think the court of appeals was right in its judgment upon the first statute, I am of opinion that its judgment upon the act of 1881, involved in this writ of error, should be reversed. The argument against this conclusion which seems to be chiefly relied on is that, in the act of 1881, the legislature made a new assessment upon a new assessment district created for that purpose by the statute, and fixed the whole amount to be raised, leaving the question of apportionment open as between the parties, upon notice and a hearing, and that all this was within the admitted competency of the legislative power of the state, the exercise of which cannot be construed as depriving the parties of their property without due process of law. But it seems to be a mere evasion to say that this was an original assessment upon a district created by law for that purpose, consisting of the lands adjudged by the legislature to be benefited by the improvement. The improvement was ordered by the act of 1869, and the assessment district was created by it, and, so far as the laying out of the street and the appropriation of private property for that purpose, and awarding damages to the owners thereof, and assessing the amount of such awards, and the attendant expenses upon the lands lying within 300 feet on either side of the avenue, which in the judgment of the commissioners should be benefited by opening and extending the street, that act and what was thus far done under it were not invalidated, but were held to be in conformity with the constitution. In the act of 1881, the legislature of New York did not profess to undo anything which had been done under the act of 1869, and certainly did not begin de novo in dealing with the improvement. On the contrary, they took that portion of the old assessment for the expense of regulating, grading, and preparing the street for travel which remained unpaid, and which had been declared to be void, and revived it by a mere act of legislation as against the parties who had been judicially declared not to be bound by it, adding interest upon it from the time when it was first charged to the state by virtue of the cancellation, as well as a part of the expenses incurred in making the original assessment. Such an act of the lei slature seems to me to be in violation of that provision of the fourteenth amendment to the federal constitution which declares that no state shall deprive any person of his property without due process of law.

I am authorized by Mr. Justice HARLAN to say that he concurs in these views.

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Affirming 3 N. E. Rep. 682.