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United States Supreme Court

70 U.S. 573

Van Allen  v.  The Assessors


The decree of the Court of Appeals, from which this case comes to us, must be reversed, on the ground that the enabling act of the State of New York, passed March 9, 1865, does not conform to the limitations prescribed by the forty-first section of the act of Congress, passed June 3, 1864, organizing the national banks, and providing for their taxation. The defect is this: one of the limitations in the act of Congress is, 'that the tax so imposed under the laws of any State upon the shares of the associations authorized by this act, shall not exceed the rate imposed upon the shares of any of the banks organized under the authority of the State where such association is located.' The enabling act of the State contains no such limitation. The banks of the State are taxed upon their capital; and although the act provides that the tax on the shares of the national banks shall not exceed the par value, yet, inasmuch as the capital of the State banks may consist of the bonds of the United States, which are exempt from State taxation, it is easy to see that this tax on the capital is not an equivalent for a tax on the shares of the stockholders.

This is an unimportant question, however, as the defect may be readily remedied by the State legislature.

The main and important question involved, and the one which has been argued at great length and with eminent ability, is, whether the State possesses the power to authorize the taxation of the shares of these national banks in the hands of stockholders, whose capital is wholly vested in stock and bonds of the United States?

The court are of opinion that this power is possessed by the State, and that it is due to the several cases which have been so fully and satisfactorily argued before us at this term, as well as to the public interest involved, that the question should be finally disposed of. I shall proceed, therefore, to state, as briefly as practicable, the grounds and reasons that have led to their judgment in the case.

The first act providing for the organization of these national banks, passed 25th February, 1863, contained no provision concerning State taxation of these shares; but Congress reserved the right by the last section at any time 'to amend, alter, or repeal the act.' The present act of 1864 is a re-enactment of the prior statute, with some material amendments, of which the section concerning State taxation is one.

It will be readily perceived, on adverting to the act, that the powers and privileges conferred by it upon these associations are very great powers and privileges;-founded upon a new use and application of these government bonds, especially the privilege of issuing notes to circulate in the community as money, to the amount of ninety per centum of the bonds deposited with the treasurer; thereby nearly doubling their amount for all the operations and business purposes of the bank. This currency furnishes means and facilities for conducting the operations of the associations, which, if used wisely and skilfully, cannot but result in great advantages and profits to all the members of the association-the shareholders of the bank.

In the granting of chartered rights and privileges by government, especially if of great value to the corporators, certain burdens are usually, if not generally, imposed as conditions of the grant. Accordingly we find them in this charter. They are very few, but distinctly stated.

They are, first, a duty of one-half of one per centum each half year, upon the average amount of its notes in circulation; second, a duty of one-quarter of one per centum each half year upon the average amount of its deposits; third, a duty of one-quarter of one per centum each half year on the average amount of its capital stock beyond the amount invested in United States bonds; and fourth, a State tax upon the shares of the association held by the stockholders, not greater than assessed on other moneyed capital in the State, nor to exceed the rate on shares of stock of State banks.

These are the only burdens annexed to the enjoyment of the great chartered rights and privileges that we find in this act of Congress; and no objection is made to either of them except the last,-the limited State taxation.

Although it has been suggested, yet it can hardly be said to have been argued, that the provision in the act of Congress concerning the taxation of the shares by the State is unconstitutional. The suggestion is, that it is a tax by the State upon the bonds of the government which constitute the capital of the bank, and which this court has heretofore decided to be illegal. But this suggestion is scarcely well founded; for were we to admit, for the sake of the argument, this to be a tax of the bonds or capital stock of the bank, it is but a tax upon the new uses and new privileges conferred by the charter of the association; it is but a condition annexed to the enjoyment of this new use and new application of the bonds; and if Congress possessed the power to grant these new rights and new privileges, which none of the learned counsel has denied, and which the whole argument assumes, then we do not see but the power to annex the conditions is equally clear and indisputable. The question involved is altogether a different one from that decided in the previous bank cases, and stands upon different considerations. The State tax, under this act of Congress, involves no question as to the pledged faith of the government. The tax is the condition for the new rights and privileges conferred upon these associations.

But, in addition to this view, the tax on the shares is not a tax on the capital of the bank. The corporation is the legal owner of all the property of the bank, real and personal; and within the powers conferred upon it by the charter, and for the purposes for which it was created, can deal with the corporate property as absolutely as a private individual can deal with his own. This is familiar law, and will be found in every work that may be opened on the subject of corporations. A striking exemplification may be seen in the case of the Queen v. Arnoud. [17] The question related to the registry of a ship owned by a corporation. Lord Denman observed: 'It appears to me that the British corporation is, as such, the sole owner of the ship. The individual members of the corporation are no doubt interested in one sense in the property of the corporation, as they may derive individual benefits from its increase, or loss from its decrease; but in no legal sense are the individual members the owners.'

The interest of the shareholder entitles him to participate in the net profits earned by the bank in the employment of its capital, during the existence of its charter, in proportion to the number of his shares; and, upon its dissolution or termination, to his proportion of the property that may remain of the corporation after the payment of its debts. This is a distinct independent interest or property, held by the shareholder like any other property that may belong to him. Now, it is this interest which the act of Congress has left subject to taxation by the States, under the limitations prescribed, as will be seen on referring to it.

'That nothing in this act shall be construed to prevent all the shares of any of the said associations, held by any person or body corporate, from being included in the valuation of personal property of such person or corporation in the assessment of taxes imposed by and under State authority, at the place where such bank is located, and not elsewhere, but not at a greater rate than is assessed upon other moneyed capital in the hands of individual citizens of such State; PROVIDED further, that the tax so imposed under the laws of any State, upon the shares of the associations, authorized by this act, shall not exceed the rate imposed upon the shares of any of the banks organized under the authority of the State where such association is located: PROVIDED, also, that nothing in this act shall exempt the real estate of associations from either State, county, or municipal taxes, to the same extent, according to its value, as other real estate is taxed.' [18]

It is said that Congress possesses no power to confer upon a State authority to be exercised which has been exclusively delegated to that body by the Constitution, and, consequently, that it cannot confer upon a State the sovereign right of taxation; nor is a State competent to receive a grant of any such power from Congress. We agree to this. But as it respects a subject-matter over which Congress and the States may exercise a concurrent power, but from the exercise of which Congress, by reason of its paramount authority, may exclude the States, there is no doubt Congress may withhold the exercise of that authority and leave the States free to act. An example of this relation existing between the Federal and State governments is found in the pilotlaws of the States, and the health and quarantine laws. The power of taxation under the Constitution as a general rule, and as has been repeatedly recognized in adjudged cases in this court, is a concurrent power. The qualifications of the rule are the exclusion of the States from the taxation of the means and instruments employed in the exercise of the functions of the Federal Government.

The remaining question is, has Congress legislated in respect to these associations, so as to leave the shares of the stockholders subject to State taxation?

We have already referred to the main provision of the act of Congress on this subject, and it will be seen it declares 'that nothing in this act shall be construed to prevent all the shares in any of the said associations, held by any person, or body corporate, from being included in the valuation of the personal property of such person or corporation in the assessment of taxes imposed by or under State authority, at the place where such bank is located:' and in another section of the act [19] it is declared 'that the president and cashier of every such association shall cause to be kept, at all times, a full and correct list of the names and residences of all the shareholders in the association, and the number of shares held by each, in the office where its business is transacted, and such list shall be subject to the inspection of all shareholders and creditors of the association, and the officers authorized to assess taxes under State authority, during business hours of each day,' &c.

These two provisions-the one declaring that nothing in the act shall be construed to prevent the shares from being included in the valuation of the personal property, &c., in the assessment of taxes imposed by State authority; and the other providing for the keeping of the list of the names and residences of the shareholders, among other things, for the inspection of the officers authorized to assess the State taxes-not only recognize, in express terms, the sovereign right of the State to tax, but prescribe regulations and duties to these associations, with a view to disembarrass the officers of the State engaged in the exercise of this right. Nothing, it would seem, could be made plainer, or more direct and comprehensive on the subject. The language of the several provisions is so explicit and positive as scarcely to call for judicial construction.

Then, as to the shares, and what is intended by the use of the term? The language of the act is equally explicit and decisive.

The persons forming an association are required to make a certificate, which shall specify, among other things, the amount of its capital stock, and the number of shares into which the same shall be divided, the names and places of residence of the shareholders, and the number of shares held by each. [20] The capital stock shall be divided into shares of one hundred dollars each, and shall be deemed personal property. The shareholders of the association shall be hald individually responsible, equally and ratably, and not one for another, for all contracts, debts, and engagements of such association to the extent of the amount of their stock therein at the par value, in addition to the amount invested in such shares. [21] In the election of directors, and in deciding all questions at meetings of shareholders, each shareholder shall be entitled to one vote on each share of stock held by him. [22] Fifty per centum of the capital stock of every association shall be paid in before it shall commence business, and the remainder in instalments of at least ten per centum per month till the whole amount is paid; and if any shareholder, or his assignee, shall fail to make the payment, or any instalment on his stock, the directors may sell the stock at public auction. [23] No association shall make any loan or discount on the security of the shares of its own capital. [24]

We have already referred to the list of the names and residences of the shareholders, and the number of shares, to be kept for the inspection of the State assessors.

Now, in view of these several provisions in which the term shares, and shareholders, are mentioned, and the clear and obvious meaning of the term in the connection in which it is found, namely, the whole of the interest in the shares and of the shareholders; when the statute provides, that nothing in this act shall be construed to prevent all the shares in any of the said association, &c., from being included in the valuation of the personal property of any person or corporation in the assessment of taxes imposed by State authority, &c., can there be a doubt but that the term 'shares,' as used in this connection, means the same interest as when used in the other portions of the act? Take, for examples, the use of the term in the certificate of the numbers of shares in the articles of association, in the division of the capital stock into shares of one hundred dollars each; in the personal liability clause, which subjects the shareholder to an amount, and, in addition, to the amount invested in such shares; in the election of directors, and in deciding all questions at meetings of the stockholders, each share is entitled to one vote; in regulations of the payments of the shares subscribed; and, finally, in the list of shares kept for the inspection of the State assessors. In all these instances, it is manifest that the term as used means the entire interest of the shareholder; and it would be singular, if in the use of the term in the connection of State taxation, Congress intended a totally different meaning, without any indication of such intent.

This is an answer to the argument that the term, as used here, means only the interest of the shareholder as representing the portion of the capital, if any, not invested in the bonds of the government, and that the State assessors must institute an inquiry into the investment of the capital of the bank, and ascertain what portion is invested in these bonds, and make a discrimination in the assessment of the shares. If Congress had intended any such discrimination, it would have been an easy matter to have said so. Certainly, so grave and important a change in the use of this term, if so intended, would not have been left to judicial construction.

Upon the whole, after the maturest consideration which we have been able to give to this case, we are satisfied that the States possess the power to tax the whole of the interest of the shareholder in the shares held by him in these associations, within the limit prescribed by the act authorizing their organization. But, for the reasons stated in the forepart of the opinion, the judgment must be reversed and the case remitted to the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, with directions to enter judgment for the plaintiffs in error, with costs.


JUDGMENT REVERSED, and the case remitted to the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, with directions to enter judgment for the plaintiffs in error, with costs.

NotesEdit

^17  9 Adolphus & Ellis, New Series, 806.

^18  §. 41.

^19  40

^20  § 6.

^21  § 12.

^22  § 11.

^23  §§ 14, 15.

^24  § 35.


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).