Carter v. Greenhow

In Carter v. Greenhow, 114 U.S. 317 (1885), the plaintiff alleged that, as full payment of his tax obligation, he tendered to a city treasurer, whose duty it was under Virginia law to collect state taxes, a small amount of money and coupons from the bonds that had been issued by the State of Virginia. The treasurer refused to accept the plaintiff's tender. Thereafter, the treasurer seized and sold the plaintiff's personal property to pay the taxes. After the seizure of his property, the plaintiff sued the treasurer for damages in the Circuit Court of the United States. The plaintiff alleged that the Virginia statute under which the coupons were issued permitted their use to pay such taxes but that a subsequent statute that forbade tax collectors from accepting the coupons as payment unconstitutionally impaired that right under the Contracts Clause. The defendant's demurrer to the plaintiff's complaint was sustained by the circuit court, and the plaintiff proceeded by writ of error to the Supreme Court. In reaching its decision to affirm, the Court began by describing the relevant jurisdictional statute as well as the statute defining the plaintiff's cause of action: "The sixteenth clause of 629 Rev. Stat. defining the original jurisdiction of the Circuit Court of the United States, gives to them cognizance, without reference to the sum or value in controversy, or the citizenship of the parties, 'of all suits authorized by law to be brought by any person to redress the deprivation, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage of any State, of any right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution of the United States, or of any right secured by any law providing for equal rights of citizens of the United States, or of all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.' "Similar jurisdiction is conferred upon District Courts by the twelfth clause of 563 Rev. Stat. " 1979 Rev. Stat., provides that 'every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States, or other person within the jurisdiction thereof, to the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.' "These three provisions constituted the first section of the act of April 20, 1871, entitled 'An Act to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes.' 17 Stat. 13. In that section, the language conferring jurisdiction in the courts, was as follows: "'Such proceeding to be prosecuted in the several District or Circuit Courts of the United States, with and subject to the same rights of appeal, review upon error, and other remedies provided in like cases in such courts, under the provisions of the act of the ninth of April, eighteen hundred and sixty-six, entitled, "An Act to protect all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and to furnish the means of their vindication." and the other remedial laws of the United States which are in their nature applicable in such cases.' " 2 of the act here referred to, of April 9, 1866, 14 Stat. 27, provided 'that any person who, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation or custom, shall subject, or cause to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State or Territory to the deprivation of any right secured or protected by this act, or to different punishment, pains or penalties on account of such person having, at any time, been held in a condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, or by reason of his color or race, than is prescribed for the punishment of white persons, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction, shall be punished by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, or imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both, in the discretion of the court.'" Carter, 114 U.S. at 320-21. The Court explained that the issue was: "whether the facts stated in the plaintiff's declaration constitute a cause of action within the terms of 1979 Rev. Stat., that is, whether he shows himself, within its meaning, to have been subjected by the defendant, under color of a statute of a State, to the deprivation of a right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution." Carter, 114 U.S. at 321. It reasoned: "The acts charged against the defendant are, that he refused to receive from the plaintiff the coupons tendered in payment of taxes, and thereafter proceeded to levy upon and take his property for the purpose of collecting such taxes in money. The rights alleged to be violated are the right to pay taxes in coupons instead of in money, and, after a tender of coupons, the immunity from further proceeding to collect such taxes as though they were delinquent. These rights the plaintiff derives from the contract with the State, contained in the act of March 28, 1879, and the bonds and coupons issued under its authority. "How and in what sense are these rights secured to him by the Constitution of the United States? The answer is, by that provision, Art. I., Sec. 10, which forbids any State to pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts. That constitutional provision, so far as it can be said to confer upon, or secure to, any person, any individual rights, does so only indirectly and incidentally. It forbids the passage by the States of laws such as are described. If any such are nevertheless passed by the legislature of a State, they are unconstitutional, null and void. In any judicial proceeding necessary to vindicate his rights under a contract, affected by such legislation, the individual has a right to have a judicial determination, declaring the nullity of the attempt to impair its obligation. This is the only right secured to him by that clause of the Constitution. But of this right the plaintiff does not show that he has been deprived. He has simply chosen not to resort to it. The right to pay his taxes in coupons, and the immunity from further proceedings, in case of a rejected tender, are not rights directly secured to him by the Constitution, and only so indirectly as they happen in this case to be the rights of contract which he holds under the laws of Virginia. And the only mode in which that constitutional security takes effect is by judicial process to invalidate the unconstitutional legislation of the State, when it is set up against the enforcement of his rights under his contract. The mode in which Congress has legislated in aid of the rights secured by that clause of the Constitution, is, as is pointed out with clearness and fulness in the opinion of the court in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3, 12, 27 L. Ed. 835, 3 S. Ct. 18, by providing for a review on writ of error to the judgments of the State courts, in cases where they have failed properly to give it effect, and by conferring jurisdiction upon the Circuit Courts by the act of March 3, 1875, ch. 137, 18 Stat. 470, of all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States, where the sum or value in dispute exceeds $ 500. Congress has provided no other remedy for the enforcement of this right." Carter, 114 U.S. at 321-23.