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Railroad Company v. Peniston, 85 U.S. 18 Wall. 5 5 (1873)

Railroad Company v. Peniston

85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 5


1. The exemption of agencies of the federal government from taxation by the states is dependent not upon the nature of the agents, nor upon the mode of their constitution, nor upon the fact that they are agents, but upon the effect of the tax -- that is, upon the question whether the tax does in truth deprive them of power to serve the government as they were intended to serve it, or hinder the efficient exercise of their power. A tax upon their property merely, having no such necessary effect, and leaving them free to discharge the duties they have undertaken to perform, may be rightfully laid by the states. A tax upon their operations being a direct obstruction to the exercise of federal powers may not be.

2. This doctrine applied to the case of a tax by a state upon the real and personal property, as distinguished from its franchises, of the Union Pacific Railroad Company, a corporation chartered by Congress for private gain, and all whose stock was owned by individuals, but which Congress assisted by donations and loans, of whose board of directors the government appoints two, which makes annual reports to the government, whose operations in laying, constructing, and working its railroad and telegraph lines, as well as its rates of toll, are subject to regulations imposed by its charter and to such further regulations as Congress may hereafter make, on whose failure to comply with the terms and conditions of its charter, or to keep the road in repair and use, Congress may assume the control and management thereof and devote the income to the use of the United States, the loan of the United States to which, amounting to many millions, is a lien on all the property, and on failure to redeem which loan the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to take possession of the road with all its rights, functions, immunities, and appurtenances for the use and benefit of the United States; and finally, where all the grants made to the company are declared to be upon the condition that, besides paying the government bonds advanced, the company shall keep the railroad and telegraph lines in repair and use, and shall at all times transmit dispatches and transport mails, troops,

Page 85 U. S. 6

and munitions of war, supplies and public stores for the government, whenever required to do so by any department thereof, and that the government shall have the preference at rates not to exceed those charged to private parties, and payable by being applied to the payment of the bonds aforesaid, and in addition to which control, and the obligations and liabilities of the company, Congress, not forbidding a state tax, reserves the right to add to, alter, amend, or repeal the charter.

3. The unorganized Territory in Nebraska west of Lincoln County and the unorganized County of Cheyenne having been attached by statute to the County of Lincoln, in Nebraska, for revenue purposes, the authorities of Lincoln County were the proper authorities to levy taxes upon property thus placed under their charge.

By Act of Congress of July 1, 1862, [Footnote 1] entitled

"An act to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes,"

Congress incorporated certain individuals, their associates and successors, as the "Union Pacific Railroad Company," with authority to build a continuous railroad and telegraph from a point on the one hundredth meridian to the western boundary of Nevada Territory. The act fixed the amount of the capital stock and shares, and declared that "the stockholders should constitute said body politic and corporate." The government had no stock in the road, though through the President of the United States it was to appoint two directors, not stockholders, out of fifteen, which the charter provided for as the number to be appointed in all. Annual reports were to be made to the Secretary of the Treasury. The act granted to the company the right of way through the public lands, and

"for the purpose of aiding in the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and to secure the safe and speedy transportation of the mails, troops, munitions of war, and the public stores thereon,"

made to it an extensive grant of lands and provided for the issuing of patents therefor. And

Page 85 U. S. 7

for the same purposes the United States agreed to, and did issue its 6 percent bonds, payable in thirty years, to the company, to the amount of $16,000 per mile for each section of forty miles, which bonds the original act declared

"shall ipso facto constitute a first mortgage on the whole of the railroad and telegraph, together with the rolling stock, fixtures, and property of every kind,"

and made specific provision as to proceedings on the failure of the company to redeem the bonds.

By an Act of July 2, 1864, [Footnote 2] this was changed, and the company authorized to issue its "first mortgage bonds to an amount not exceeding the bonds of the United States," and the lien of the bonds of the United States was declared to be subordinate to the bonds so issued by the company, with the exception relating to the transportation of dispatches, troops, mails &c., for the government.

The grants to the company were declared by the original act to be made upon condition that the company shall (1) pay the bonds of the United States at maturity; (2) keep their line and road in repair and use; (3)

"transmit dispatches over said telegraph line, and transport mails, troops, and munitions of war, supplies, and public stores upon said railroad for the government,"

&c., giving the government the preference at fair and reasonable rates of compensation, not exceeding those charged to private individuals, the amount thus earned to be applied in payment of the bonds, as well as 5 percent of the net earnings of the road after its completion.

By the seventeenth section of the same act, it was provided that if the road, when finished, should for any unreasonable time be permitted to remain out of repair or unfit for use, Congress should have authority to put the same in repair and use, and from the income of the road reimburse the government for expenditures thus caused.

The eighteenth section provided that when the net earnings of the road should exceed 10 percent of its cost, Congress

Page 85 U. S. 8

might reduce, fix, and regulate rates of fare thereon, and declared that

"the better to accomplish the object of this act, to-wit, to promote the public interest and welfare by the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and keeping the same in working order, and to secure the government at all times (but particularly in times of war) the use and benefits of the same for postal, military, and other purposes, Congress may at any time, having due regard for the rights of said companies named herein, add to, alter, amend, or repeal this act."

The act also contained provisions that so far as the public and government were concerned, the railroad and branches should be worked as one connected and continuous line.

There was no provision in any act of Congress relating to this company respecting the taxation of it or its property by the states through which its roads might run.

The road was completed and put in operation in May, 1869, and with the Central Pacific Railroad formed a continuous line from the Missouri River and the Eastern states to California and the Pacific, thus uniting the extremities of the country. At the time of granting the charter, the territory over which this line was projected all belonged to the United States. But Nevada was admitted into the Union as a state in 1864, and Nebraska in 1867, and the road, as constructed, crosses the latter state in its whole breadth, from east to west.

So far as to the history of the Union Pacific Railway. Now as to a certain tax laid upon it, the subject of this suit.

On the 15th of February, 1869, the Legislature of Nebraska passed an act "to define the western boundary of Lincoln County," which, after defining it, provided,

"That all the unorganized country lying west of the western boundary of Lincoln and east of the east line of Cheyenne County and south of the North Platte River be, and the same is hereby, attached to the said County of Lincoln for judicial and revenue purposes, and that the County of Cheyenne be, and

Page 85 U. S. 9

the same is hereby, attached, for judicial and revenue purposes to said County of Lincoln. [Footnote 3]"

In this state of things, the authorities of Lincoln County, in the State of Nebraska, under a revenue law of the state, passed on the same 15th of February, 1869, laid a tax upon the property of the railroad company, embraced within the taxation, upon the valuation of $16,000 per mile, for a length of one hundred and seventy-six miles. [Footnote 4]

The property of the company thus rated and taxed consisted of its roadbed, depots, wood stations, water stations, and other realty; telegraph poles, telegraph wires, bridges, boats, books, papers, office furniture and fixtures, money and credits, movable property, engines &c.

The population of Lincoln County and all the attached territory, by the census of 1870, was 1,352 persons. The whole amount of the tax list was $4,081,904, of which was

Property of the company . . . . . . $3,936,000

Property of other taxpayers . . . . 145,904

The tax levied by the county was $41,328 upon the company's property, and $6,350.45 upon the property of other taxpayers.

The tax levied upon the company's property was distributed under the following heads or purposes of taxation:

For state general fund . . . . . . . . . $7,872

For state sinking fund . . . . . . . . . 3,936

For state school fund. . . . . . . . . . 3,936

For county general fund. . . . . . . . . 19,680

For county sinking fund. . . . . . . . . 3,936

And for district school purposes . . . . 1,968

The length of the company's road lying within the territory ascribed to Lincoln County for taxation, was as follows: in Lincoln County, eight miles; in Cheyenne County (unorganized), one hundred and five miles; between the two

Page 85 U. S. 10

counties, sixty-three miles, making a total of one hundred and seventy-six miles.

In this state of things, one Peniston, Treasurer of Lincoln County, being about to collect the tax laid, the Union Pacific Railroad Company filed a bill in the Circuit Court of the United States in the District of Nebraska against him to restrain his doing so, assigning as grounds for the bill among others:

That the State of Nebraska had no power to subject to taxation for state purposes the roadbed, rolling stock, and other property necessary for the use and operation of the road, such power resting, as it was asserted by the bill, exclusively in the government of the United States.

That Lincoln County was not by law authorized to tax any portion of the roadbed or property of the company, except such as was situate within its geographical limits.

The cause was heard upon pleadings and agreed proofs, and the circuit court refused to restrain the collection of the tax against the one hundred and seventy-six miles of the road, holding the same to have been lawfully imposed, and the property of the company to be open to state taxation. Upon this decree's being brought here by the present appeal, the following errors were assigned:

First. That it was error to hold the tax a valid imposition upon the property of the Union Pacific Railroad Company subjected to it, such property being exempt from state taxation by virtue of the incorporation of the company by the United States as a means for the performance of certain public duties of the government enjoined and authorized by the Constitution.

Second. That it was error to hold the rating and taxing of the property of the company, outside the County of Lincoln, by the authorities of that county, valid and lawful under the legislation of the state.

Page 85 U. S. 29

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