MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.
Unless the order of commitment was utterly void for want of power, this application must be denied. The writ of habeas corpus is not to be used to perform the office of a writ of error or appeal; but when no writ of error or appeal will lie, if a petitioner is imprisoned under a judgment of the Circuit Court, which had no jurisdiction of the person or of the subject matter, or authority to render the judgment complained of, then relief may be accorded. Ex parte Parks, 93 U.S. 18; Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289, Neilsen, Petitioner, 131 U.S. 176. And even if the contention were well founded, which is not at all to be conceded, that under the fifth section of the Judiciary Act of March 3, 1891, a writ of error might be brought to review such a judgment as that before us, and
that thereby our appellate jurisdiction was enlarged, we should still decline to consider the whole record for error merely, but only to ascertain whether the judgment was absolutely void.
The property in question was in the custody of the Circuit Court, in a cause within its jurisdiction, and protected by injunction. The power exercised was the power to protect the property in the custody of the court from invasion, and in order to sustain the receiver's application the ordinary grounds of equity interposition were not required to be set forth. Whether inadequacy of remedy at law in respect of the disputed taxes, or the requisite jurisdictional amount, or diverse citizenship, were shown to exist, was not and could not be matter of inquiry. But it may be observed that diverse citizenship is not material in ancillary and dependent proceedings, where jurisdiction exists over the subject of the litigation; Krippendorf v. Hyde, 110 U.S. 276; Morgan's Co. v. Texas Central Railroad, 137 U.S. 171, 201; that the objection of adequacy of legal remedy as here presented goes to the want of equity and not to want of power; Reynes v. Dumont, 130 U.S. 354; and that an apparent defect of jurisdiction for lack of a matter in controversy of sufficient pecuniary value can be availed of only by appeal or writ of error. In re Sawyer, 124 U.S. 200, 221. In the latter case, the distinction between an absolute want of power and its defective exercise, between cases where the subject matter falls within a class over which equity has jurisdiction and those where it does not, is clearly pointed out and the authorities cited.
No rule is better settled than that when a court has appointed a receiver, his possession is the possession of the court, for the benefit of the parties to the suit and all concerned, and cannot be disturbed without the leave of the court; and that if any person, without leave, intentionally interferes with such possession, he necessarily commits a contempt of court, and is liable to punishment therefor. Wiswall v. Sampson, 14 How. 52; Taylor v. Carryl, 20 How. 583; Davis v. Gray, 16 Wall. 203; Krippendorf v. Hyde, 110 U.S. 276; Barton
v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126; Gumbel v. Pitkin, 124 U.S. 131.
Ordinarily the court will not allow its receiver to be sued touching the property in his charge, nor for any malfeasance of the parties, or others, without its consent; and while the third section of the act of Congress of March 3, 1887, 24 Stat. 552, c. 373, now permits a receiver to be sued without leave, it also provides that "such suit shall be subject to the general equity jurisdiction of the court in which such receiver or manager was appointed, so far as the same shall be necessary to the ends of justice." Neither that, nor the second section, which provides that the receiver shall manage the proerty "according to the valid laws of the State in which such property shall be situated," restricts the power of the Circuit Courts to preserve property in the custody of the law from external attack.
In this case, instead of issuing an attachment against the petitioner at once for forcibly seizing the rolling stock of this railroad under the circumstances appearing upon the face of the record, the court adopted the course of serving him with a rule to show cause, and with an order restraining him, in the meantime, from interference with the property. The petitioner refused to release the property upon request of the receiver, and persisted in his attempt to hold possession thereof by force in disregard of the order of the court.
The general doctrine that property in the possession of a receiver appointed by a court is in custodia legis, and that unauthorized interference with such possession is punishable as a contempt, is conceded; but it is contended that this salutary rule has no application to the collection of taxes. Undoubtedly property so situated is not thereby rendered exempt from the imposition of taxes by the government within whose jurisdiction the property is, and the lien for taxes is superior to all other liens whatsoever, except judicial costs, when the property is rightfully in the custody of the law, but this does not justify a physical invasion of such custody and a wanton disregard of the orders of the court in respect of it. The maintenance of the system of checks and
balances characteristic of republican institutions requires the coordinate departments of government, whether federal or state, to refrain from any infringement of the independence of each other, and the possession of property by the judicial department cannot be arbitrarily encroached upon, save in violation of this fundamental principle.
The levy of a tax warrant, like the levy of an ordinary fieri facias, sequestrates the property to answer the exigency of the writ; but property in the possession of the receiver is already in sequestration, already held in equitable execution, and while the lien for taxes must be recognized and enforced, the orderly administration of justice requires this to be done by and under the sanction of the court. It is the duty of the court to see to it that this is done; and a seizure of the property against its will can only be predicated upon the assumption that the court will fail in the discharge of its duty, an assumption carrying a contempt upon its face.
The acceptance of the rule has been general, and but few decisions were cited on the argument in illustration of its application.
The Court of Appeals of Maryland, in Prince George's County Commissioners v. Clarke, 36 Maryland, 206, 218, stated the question presented to be "whether, after a decree has been passed by a court of equity for the sale of real estate and trustees have been appointed to make such sale, a collector of taxes has the power to seize and sell the same, or any part thereof, for taxes due." And the court thus proceeded: The decree was passed the 9th of November, 1865. The taxes for which the land was sold were assessed for the years 1866 and 1867, and the collector's sale took place the 29th of September, 1870. The land in the meantime had been sold by the trustees, under the decree in the equity case, but exceptions having been filed to the sale, the question of its ratification was still pending. So that both at the time of the imposition of the taxes and at the time of the ...