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WISCONSIN AND MICHIGAN RAILWAY CO. v. POWERS

November 30, 1903

WISCONSIN AND MICHIGAN RAILWAY CO
v.
POWERS



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN

Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, Peckham, McKenna, Holmes, Day; White took no part in the decision

Author: Holmes

[ 191 U.S. Page 384]

 MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is an appeal from a decree of the United States Circuit Court dismissing the plaintiff's bill on demurrer. The bill seeks to enjoin the auditor general of the State of Michigan from collecting a tax, on the ground that the law imposing the tax is contrary to the Constitution of the United States as impairing the obligation of contracts and interfering with interstate commerce.

The alleged contract is contained in a law of May 27, 1893, ยง 3, which, after levying a specific tax on railroads, provided "that the rate of taxation fixed by this act or any other law of this State shall not apply to any railway or railroad company hereafter building and operating a line of railroad within this State north of parallel forty-four of latitude until the same has been operated for the full period of ten years, unless the gross earnings shall equal four thousand dollars per mile, except," etc. Afterwards, on October 23, 1893, the Menominee and Northern Railroad Company was incorporated under the laws of the State, and forthwith conveyed all its property, rights and franchises to the plaintiff, a Wisconsin corporation, which is assumed to stand in the shoes of the Michigan company. The plaintiff thereupon constructed the road. This road is north of parallel forty-four, its gross earnings never have been equal to four thousand dollars per mile, and it would be entitled to the exemptions just stated if the law of 1893 still were in force. But on June 4, 1897, the State passed a law amending the act of 1893, and levying a "specific tax upon the property and business of [every] railroad corporation operated within the State," and enacted that "when the railroad lies partly within and partly without this State, prima facie, the gross income of said company from such road for the purposes of taxation shall be on the actual earnings of the road in Michigan, computed by adding to the income derived from the business transacted by said company entirely within this State, such proportion of the income of said company arising from the

[ 191 U.S. Page 385]

     interstate business as the length of the road over which said interstate business is carried in this State bears to the entire length of the road over which said interstate business is carried." This is the law which the plaintiff says is unconstitutional for the reasons above set forth.

The demurrer to the bill was sustained on the ground that the act of 1893 made no valid contract of exemption from taxation, and that the act of 1897, repealing the exemption granted in 1893, was a constitutional law.

The plaintiff makes a supplemental alternative argument that the later statute should not be construed to repeal the act of 1893 with regard to roads in the plaintiff's position. If that were so the plaintiff would have no standing in this court. But the repeal is plain from the express words at the end of the section quoted from the act of 1897, repealing all acts or parts of acts contravening the provisions of that section, from the fact that it is an amendment of the section quoted from the act of 1893, and from the case of Manistee & Northerastern Railroad Co. v. Commissioner of Railroads, 118 Michigan, 349, 350. See also Welch v. Cook, 97 U.S. 541. On that question we follow the state court. Northern Central Railway Co. v. Maryland, 187 U.S. 258, 267.

The first and main question, then, is whether the act of 1893 purported to make an irrevocable contract with such railroad as might thereafter comply with its terms. The question is pretty well answered by a series of decisions in this court. A distinction between an exemption from taxation contained in a special charter and general encouragement to all persons to engage in a certain class of enterprise, is pointed out in East Saginaw Manfg. Co. v. East Saginaw, 13 Wall. 373, (" Salt Co. v. East Saginaw "); S. C., 19 Michigan, 259. In earlier and later cases it was mentioned that there was no counter-obligation, service, or detriment incurred, that properly could be regarded as a consideration for the supposed contract. Rector, etc., of Christ Church v. Philadelphia County, 24 How. 300; Tucker v. Ferguson, 22 Wall. 527; Grand Lodge, etc., of Louisiana

[ 191 U.S. Page 386]

     v. New Orleans, 166 U.S. 143. See Tomlinson v. Jessup, 15 Wall. 454, 459. But whatever the ground, thus far attempts like the present to make a contract out of the clauses in a scheme of taxation which happen to benefit certain parties have failed. See further, Welch v. Cook, 97 U.S. 541, and Manistee & Northeastern Railroad Co. v. Commissioner of Railroads, 118 Michigan, 349, in which the state court deals with this very act.

It may be that a State, by sufficient words, might bind itself without consideration, as a private individual may bind himself by recognizance or by affixing a seal. A State might abolish the requirement of consideration altogether for simple contracts by private persons, and, it may be that it equally might dispense with the requirement for itself. But the presence or absence of consideration is an aid to construction in doubtful cases -- a circumstance to take into account in determining whether the State has purported to ...


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