Turner v. Smith/Opinion of the Court
Two propositions are relied on to defeat the title under the sale for taxes.
1. That the land was sold at the tax sale for less than two-thirds of its assessed value.
2. That the plaintiffs below, in whose favor the judgment was rendered, were the owners of a rent charge on the land, which was not extinguished by the sale for the unpaid taxes.
1. The first of these propositions is founded on the amendment to the seventh section of the act of June 7th, 1862, passed February 6th, 1863. The latter act undoubtedly was intended to be a substitute for the seventh section of the former, and to supersede it entirely. In a case of doubtful construction it is, therefore, important to consider what changes are made by the latter in regard to the matter now in controversy. By the original section the commissioners who were appointed for the collection of the tax were required, at the time and place of sale, to cause the lots and lands to be severally sold to the highest bidder for a sum not less than the tax, penalty, and costs, and 10 per centum per annum interest on said tax, pursuant to notice, and to strike off the same severally to the United States at that sum, unless some person should bid the same or a larger sum.
The amendment says that the commissioners shall be required, 'at the time and place of sale, to cause the same to be severally sold to the highest bidder for a sum not less than the taxes, penalty, and costs, and 10 per centum per annum interest on said tax, pursuant to notice; in all cases where the owners of said lots or parcels of ground shall not, on or before the day of sale, appear in person before the board of commissioners and pay the amount of said tax, with 10 per centum interest thereon, with costs of advertising the same, or request the same to be struck off to a purchaser for less than two-thirds of the assessed value of said several lots or parcels of ground, the said commissioners shall be authorized, at said sale, to bid off the same to the United States at a sum not exceeding two-thirds of the assessed value thereof, unless some person shall bid a larger sum.'
The first act and the second are alike in the provision that the land shall be sold to the highest bidder for a sum not less than what is due on it for tax, interest, and cost. This, in both cases, refers to bids by others than the United States. In reference to bids made by the commissioners on behalf of the United States, there is a change. The first statute made it imperative that the commissioner should strike off the land to the United States at the amount of the tax, interest, and costs, unless others bid that or a larger sum; and it is a fair inference that the commissioners were not authorized to bid at all for the land, unless it be called a bid to strike it off to the government, when no one else would take it, for the tax, interest, and costs.
The second statute makes a material change in this part of the law. When the owner does not pay, or request the same to be struck off to a purchaser for a less sum than two-thirds of its value, the commissioners are authorized to bid off the same to the United States at a sum not exceeding two-thirds of such assessed value.
The intention in making this change seems to us to be to remove the restriction by which the United States must either take the land for the taxes, or let it go to whoever would pay the taxes, or any greater sum, if he was the highest bidder. After the amount due was offered the government was, by the first statute, no longer a competing bidder, and the owner was at the mercy of private bidders. Under the new statute the commissioner could become a competitor after the amount of the tax was bid, with two limitations. First, he should not bid against a purchaser whom the owner, by request, preferred. And, secondly, he should not bid beyond two-thirds of the value.
Instead of being bound to bid that sum, he was authorized to bid any sum not exceeding that, and could not bid that if the purchaser requested that it might be struck off to a friend for less than that sum. If the language had been that he was authorized to bid it off at two-thirds, it would be a forced and unnatural construction of the section to hold that the words were imperative. The language which would express that idea would be that he was required to do it, or that he should not bid it off for a less sum. But here, while he is authorized to bid, that bid may be for any sum not exceeding two-thirds its value.
But the sale in this case comes within the first category. The United States did not bid at all. A private person bid a sum sufficient to pay the tax, interest, and cost, and the commissioner let him have it, and we see nothing in the statute which forbids it. Certainly we cannot infer because the United States authorized the commissioner in a defined contingency to bid off the land for a sum not exceeding two-thirds its value, that he was therefore bound in all cases to make it bring that much.
We think there was error in the Appellate Court of Virginia in holding the sale void because this was not done.
2. In the act of August 5th, 1861, apportioning the tax of $20,000,000 among the States, according to population, provision is made for its collection out of the lands within those States, if not paid by the States. Under the provisions of that act it might admit of some doubt whether the tax was in its essence a tax on the land, and on all the various estates into which the fee may have been divided, or was a tax on the owner of the land, and levied on the interest of the owner in it, and on no other subordinate or incorporeal interest. But no tax was ever collected, or any land sold under that act. The States which, in the war for the support of which this tax was levied, supported the General Government, assumed and paid the portion allotted to each. With regard to the States which were in insurrection, Congress passed a new law for the assessment and collection of their portion, under which the sale in this case was made. That act, the statute of 1862, to which we have already referred, directed the commissioners to whom the collection of the tax was intrusted, to take the last assessment of the value of the lands made in each State for State taxation as the basis on which the tax charged to that State by the act of 1861 should be apportioned among the several lots and parcels within that State, and a penalty of fifty per cent. was added in each case for non-payment. The President was directed to declare by his proclamation what States or parts of States were in insurrection, and 'thereupon the said several lots or parcels of land became charged respectively with their respective portions of said direct tax, and the same, together with the penalty, became a lien thereon, without any further proceedings whatever.' Section three gave a time in which this tax might be paid, and section four proceeds to say that 'the title of, in, and to each and every parcel of land upon which said said tax has not been paid as above provided, shall thereupon become forfeited to the United States, and upon the sale hereinafter provided for shall vest in the United States, or in the purchaser at such sale, in fee simple, free and discharged from all liens, incumbrances, right, title, and claim whatsoever.'
There is nothing in the statute which requires the tax commissioners to hunt up the owner, or to make the tax out of personal property of his, or which may be found upon the land. It is clearly a direct tax on the land, and on all the estates, interests, and claims connected with or growing out of the land. All this was forfeited to the United States on non-payment of the taxes, and passed with the sale to the purchaser, subject alone to the right of redemption, which the law allowed. In that respect it was a defeasible title, but in all other respects perfect, complete, and entire. The language of the statute is explicit to this purport, and the policy and necessity of the government, which could not look after the fugitive and hostile owners, required such a tax, and such a mode of collecting it.
We are of opinion, therefore, that the sale being a valid one the rent charge of the defendant in error was cut off and destroyed by it.
JUDGMENT REVERSED, and and cause remanded for further proceedings IN CONFORMITY TO THIS OPINION.