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United States Supreme Court

83 U.S. 471

Morgan  v.  Parham

The fact that the vessel was physically within the limits of the city of Mobile, at the time the tax was levied, does not decide the question. Thus, if a traveller on that day had been passing through that city in his private carriage, or an emigrant with his worldly goods on a wagon, it is not contended that the property of either of these persons would be subject to taxation as property within the city. It is conceded by the respective counsel that it would not have been.

On the other hand this vessel, although a vehicle of commerce, was not exempt from taxation on that score. A steamboat or a post-coach engaged in a local business within a State may be subject to local taxation, although it carry the mail of the United States. The commerce between the States may not be interfered with by taxation or other interruption, but its instruments and vehicles may be. [3] It is not, therefore, upon this principle that we are to decide the case. Nor does it fall within that range of cases of which The Steamship Company v. The Portwardens, [4] and Gibbons v. Ogden, [5] furnish illustrations. In each of those cases the taxation was upon a subject directly connected with the navigation of the public waters and with the commerce of the country. In the first case a statute had been passed requiring every vessel entering the harbor of New Orleans to pay five dollars to the port wardens, in addition to other fees, whether any service were performed or not. In the second case vessels navigating the waters of the Hudson River were required to take a license for that purpose from the State of New York. The imposition in this class of cases was a tax upon the use of the public waters of the country, and tended immediately to interfere with and to obstruct the commerce between the States. In the instance before us the tax was upon a vessel at the wharf. It was in this respect as if a tax had been laid upon lumber or cotton lying on the dock at Mobile.

This vessel was owned by and employed in the service of a resident of the State of New York. It was primarily and presumptively taxable under the authority of that State, and of that State only. It is urged that her status, or condition, was affected by what was done, or neglected, in regard to her register and enrolment. In Blanchard v. Martha Washington, [6] the law on this subject is thus explained: 'Ships or vessels are required to be registered [7] by the collector of the district in which shall be comprehended the port to which the same shall belong at the time of the registry, which port shall be deemed to be that at, or nearest to which, the owner, if there be but one, or, if more than one, the husband and acting manager usually resides.' Permanent registry, therefore, as appears by this provision, is required to be made at the home port of the vessel, and what is meant by the home port is clearly and plainly defined. Registry must be made at her home port, and the same section provides that the name of the vessel, and the port to which she shall so belong, shall be painted on her stern, on a black ground, in white letters, of not less than three inches in length. All persons, therefore, have the means of ascertaining the name of the vessel and her home port, and her shipping papers, which include a copy of her register or enrolment, are by law required to furnish the same information. The act of February 18th, 1793, prescribes the terms and shows the effect of enrolment in another port. In substance, the perman nt register is given up to the collector of that port, and a certificate is issued showing the name of the vessel, the port to which she belongs, and that to which she is destined. This certificate is temporary in its character, and is based upon the proposition that the vessel belongs, or has her home port, at a different place from that at which she receives this certificate. [8]

There was nothing, therefore, in her enrolment in the port of Mobile that affected her registry in New York, or her ownership in that place, or that tended to subject her to the taxation of the State of Alabama, under the circumstances stated.

It is the opinion of the court that the State of Alabama had no jurisdiction over this vessel for the purpose of taxation, for the reason that it had not become incorporated into the personal property of that State, but was there temporarily only, and that it was engaged in lawful commerce between the States with its situs at the home port of New York, where it belonged and where its owner was liable to be taxed for its value. The case of Hays v. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, [9] is decisive of the case before us. In that case all the stockholders in the vessel sought to be taxed resided in New York, but had agencies in Panama and San Francisco, and a naval dock and yard at Benicia, in that State, for the purpose of repairing and furnishing supplies. On arriving at San Francisco the vessel usually remained a day only to unload her freight and passengers, and proceeded to Benicia for repairs and refitting for the next voyage, and usually remained there ten or twelve days. The vessels were part of a line plying in connection between New York and San Francisco, carrying freight and passengers, were all ocean ships and all registered in New York, and taxes were assessed upon them in that State. This route and this mode of proceeding was the permanent, regular, and continued business of the ships in question. Taxes for the years 1851 and 1852 were assessed upon the vessels under authority of the State of California, paid under protest, and suit brought to recover back the taxes so paid. A recovery was had below, and this court sustained the judgment in an able opinion delivered by my learned predecessor, Mr. Justice Nelson. The ships, it was held, were engaged in the business and commerce of the country upon the great highway of nations, touching at such ports and places as their interests demanded. He says, 'So far as respects the ports and harbors within the United States, they are entered and cargoes discharged or laden on board, independently of any control over them except as it respects such municipal and sanitary regulations of the local authorities as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the General Government, to which belongs the regulation of commerce with foreign nations and between the States. . . . But whether (he proceeds) the vessel leaving her home port for trade and commerce visits, in the course of her voyage or business, several ports or confines her operations in the carrying trade to one, are questions that will depend on the profitable returns of the business, and will furnish no more evidence that she has become a part of the personal property within the State and liable to taxation at one port more than the other. She is within the jurisdiction of all or any one of them temporarily and for a purpose wholly excluding the idea of permanently abiding in the State or changing her home port. Our merchant vessels are not unfrequently absent for years in the foreign carrying trade, seeking cargo, carrying it and unlading it from port to port during all the time absent; but they neither lose their national character nor their home port, as inscribed upon their stern.'

This vessel, the Frances, remained the property of the plaintiff, with her home port t New York, and had never become blended with the commerce and property of the State of Alabama, within the principle of People v. Commissioners. [10] The vessel touches tri-weekly or daily at Mobile, and the same at New Orleans. If her regular route were from New Orleans to Mobile, thence to St. Augustine, thence to Savannah, thence to Charleston, and returning by the same course, the case would be no different. She would be engaged in interstate commerce, with her home port still remaining unchanged, and the property continuing unmixed with the permanent property of either State. Her right to trade at each of those ports, without molestation by either of these States, is secured by the Constitution of the United States. The Federal authority has been exerted by the passage of the navigation laws and the issuing of a coasting license to this vessel. All State interference is thereby excluded.

Whether the steamer Frances was actually taxed in New York during the years 1866 and 1867 is not shown by the case. It is not important. She was liable to taxation there. That State alone had dominion over her for that purpose. Alabama had no more power to tax her or her owner than had Louisiana, or than Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina would have had in the case I have supposed.

The jurisdiction of this court over the present case, as in the case of Hays v. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, [11] arises from the facts, first that the property had not become blended with the business and commerce of Alabama, but remained legally of and as in New York; and secondly, that the vessel was lawfully engaged in the interstate trade, over the public waters. It is in law as if the vessel had never before or after that day been within the port of Mobile, but touching there on a single occasion when engaged in the interstate trade, had been subjected to a tax as personal property of that city. Within the authorities it is an interference with the commerce of the country not permitted to the States.



^3  Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheaton, 1; 'Passenger Cases,' 7 Howard, 283.

^4  6 Wallace, 31.

^5  9 Wheaton, 210.

^6  1 Clifford, 466.

^7  1 Stat. at Large, 288.

^8  Branchard v. Martha Washington, supra; White's Bank v. Smith, 7 Wallace, 646.

^9  17 Howard, 596.

^10  23 New York, 224.

^11  Supra.

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).