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United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 675

County of Ray  v.  Vansycle


The first inquiry suggested by the facts set forth in the special finding is as to the validity of the agreement of 1868, whereby the county of Ray secured exemption from liability to the North Missouri Railroad Company, on its original subscription of $200,000, and the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company obtained the bonds of the county for that amount. This question must be determined in the light of all that occurred in connection with the efforts made to secure a railroad through that county.

It appears that, at the election held in the year 1860, more than two-thirds of the votes cast in the county were in favor of a subscription of $200,000 to the capital stock of the Missouri River Valley Railroad Company, which proposed to construct a railroad through the county. The only condition which the voters imposed was, that the stock subscribed under the authority of that election 'should be expended on that part of the railroad in the county of Ray.' In obedience to the popular will, the subscription was made in that year. When, however, in 1864, that company transferred all its effects, assets, rights, and privileges to the North Missouri Railroad Company, the latter became entitled to the benefit of that subscription, and, in satisfaction thereof, to the bonds of the county, to the amount of $200,000. Of the validity of that transfer we have no doubt. It was authorized by an act of the General Assembly of Missouri, and made with the sanction of the stockholders of the companies interested, including the county. At the meeting of stockholders called to consider the question of transfer, the county was represented by an agent, designated by the county court, with specific instructions to vote the stock of the county in favor of such transfer. In appointing that agent, with such instructions, the court did not exceed its powers; since, by the terms of the act of Dec. 5, 1859, under the provisions of which the original subscription was made, the court was authorized 'to take proper steps to protect the interests' of the county, and also 'to appoint an agent to represent the county, to vote for it, and to receive its dividends.' It seems, therefore, entirely clear that the North Missouri Railroad Company acquired, prior to the adoption of the State constitution of 1865, a vested right to demand and receive the bonds of the county in payment of its original subscription. This right was not destroyed or impaired by that constitution. It has been decided by the Supreme Court of Missouri, that the section of the constitution of that State relating to municipal subscriptions was 'a limitation upon the future power of the legislature, and was not intended to retroact so as to have any controlling application to laws in existence when the constitution was adopted.' State, &c. v. Macon County Court, 41 Mo. 453; State, &c. v. Greene County, 54 id. 540; The State, ex rel. &c. v. The County Court of Sullivan County, 51 id. 522; County of Callaway v. Foster, 93 U.S. 570; County of Scotland v. Thomas, 94 id. 688; County of Henry v. Nicolay, 95 id. 619.

But the North Missouri Railroad Company, for some unexplained reason, did not proceed in the construction of the contemplated road. Counsel do not, however, claim that its delay in that regard worked a forfeiture of its right to the bonds of Ray County, at the time of the organization, in the year 1868, of the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company. The latter had in view the construction of a road from some point on the west branch of the North Missouri Railroad, at Richmond, the county seat of Ray, to the city of St. Joseph,-in all material respects, the same road for the construction of which the county had previously contracted with the North Missouri Railroad Company. At this crisis, the latter company, having perhaps a pecuniary interest in establishing a connection between its west branch and the city of St. Joseph, proposed to release the county from its subscription of $200,000, if it would subscribe $250,000 to the capital stock of the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company. Declining to assent to that arrangement, the court, on behalf of the county, made a counter-proposition; to wit, that, for the purpose of constructing a railroad from the west branch of the North Missouri Railroad, through Richmond to St. Joseph, it would transfer the $200,000 subscription to the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company, by making a similar subscription to that company, to be applied in building, constructing, and operating such road, provided the county was released, in writing and of record, from all liability upon its original subscription to the North Missouri Railroad Company. This proposition was promptly acceded to by both companies. The required release was executed and put upon record; and the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company entered upon the construction of, and did construct, the proposed road; receiving the bonds of Ray County in sums of $50,000, as each five miles of road was completed, and faithfully applying the proceeds to that portion of the road which was in that county.

We are now asked to declare that the county is under no legal obligation to pay its bonds, issued and put upon the market under the circumstances we have detailed.

The fundamental proposition underlying the defence is, that, after the adoption of the Constitution of 1865, no subscription of stock could be lawfully made by the county until after an election; and that, no election having been held at which the people voted specifically in favor of a subscription to the stock of the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company, the action of the court was a nullity, creating no liability whatever upon the bonds issued in pursuance of the agreement of 1868. Whatever weight that proposition might have in some cases, it does not meet the precise issues here presented. It ignores altogether the direct connection which existed between the agreement of 1868 and the action taken by the county and its court prior to the yea 1865, whereby the county assumed the obligation to issue its bonds to the amount of $200,000, in discharge of a completed subscription to the stock of a corporation which came into existence and was fully organized before that constitution went into operation, and which could, notwithstanding the adoption of that instrument, compel the county to comply with its contract. It is the case of a transfer of such stock by exchange, in order that the county might obtain the desired road, and be discharged from legal obligations from which it could not justly or rightfully escape. It is not the case of an entirely new subscription, made under the Constitution of 1865, in disregard of its provisions and of the general statutes passed in pursuance thereof. When the arrangement of 1868 was first suggested, the court saw that the desire of its constituents for the construction of a railroad through the county was not likely to be fulfilled through the agency of, or under the contracts previously made with, the North Missouri Railroad Company. Its members became convinced that the only effectual or practicable made to accomplish that end was to make such an arrangement or combination as that made with the new company. The court was given by the statute, under which the original subscription was made, the power to 'take proper steps to protect the interests of the county;' to which end it was authorized to appoint an agent 'to represent the county, to vote for it,' &c.; and, in exercising this power, it was necessarily invested with very broad discretion. It is not an unreasonable construction of the statute to say that, in determining what steps were proper for the protection of the interests of the tax-payers, the court had authority to adopt such measures as prudent men managing the affairs of others ought to have adopted. It evidently regarded the arrangement made in 1868 as essential to the protection of the county's interests, so far as they were involved in the subscription of stock previously made, and in the obligations thereby assumed. There is nothing in the record upon which to base any imputation of collusion or bad faith. The action was taken under such circumstances of publicity as to notify the tax-payers generally of all that was doing; and we are not prepared to say that the court had not the power to transfer the subscription from the North Missouri Railroad Company to the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company, and deliver the county bonds to the latter, upon its agreement to build substantially the same road for the construction of which the original subscription had been made.

But whatever doubt exists upon this point should be resolved in favor of the bona fide holders of the bonds. The tax-payers of the county should not, under the peculiar circumstances of this case, be now heard to allege that their agents, invested by statute with the authority and charged with the duty of protecting their interests, had exceeded their powers. The court levied and collected a tax to pay interest due on the bonds delivered to the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company for the years 1869, 1870, 1871, 1872, and 1873. The coupons were annually paid for the first four years named. It is true that, at a term of the court held in August, 1871, an order was entered of record, stating that the bonds had been issued illegally and were void, and upon that ground the order recited that neither the bonds nor the coupons would be paid by the county. But in March, 1872, that order was rescinded, and the county treasurer directed to proceed with the payment of the interest. It was not until August, 1873, that the court finally determined to repudiate all obligations to pay the bonds; and under its orders the interest collected for 1873 has been retained. It further appears from the special finding that the North Missouri Railroad Company constructed its western branch from Moberly to Kansas City, running through the county for a distance of between twenty-six and twenty-eight miles; that the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company constructed its road from opposite Lexington through Richmond, locating a depot in Richmond, and continuing to the northwest boundary of said county, a distance of twenty-eight miles; that said road is completed and operated to the city of St. Joseph, Missouri; that on the first-named road there are four depots located in Ray County, and on the latter five depots; that the money realized from the sale of the bonds issued was expended in the construction of the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad, in the county of Ray, and, in consequence of this arrangement, the county secured the construction and operation, within its limits, of about twenty-four miles of railroad more than would have been built under the previous contract or arrangement with the North Missouri Railroad Company.

But this is not all. In payment of the county subscription and bonds, certificates of stock in the St. Louis and St. Joseph Railroad Company were issued to the county, and are still held by it. They have never been tendered for cancellation. When the court declared, in 1873, that the county would pay neither the principal nor the interest due on the bonds, no intimation was given of even its willingness to surrender the certificates.

Upon the clearest principles of justice, the tax-payers of Ray County are concluded by the acts of their official agents, and by their own failure, either intentionally or from neglect, to assert, by appropriate proceedings, their legal right (if any they ever had) to prevent the transfer of their original subscription to the company, which, by the construction of its road, gave them greater railroad facilities, and at no greater cost, than they could have obtained under the contract with the North Missouri Railroad Company.

Although this case has many features peculiar to it, the conclusion we have reached is in harmony with settled principles heretofore announced by this court in numerous cases.

It seems unnecessary to consider other points suggested in argument, as the views here expressed are sufficient to dispose of the case.

Judgment affirmed.

NotesEdit

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).