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GEORGIA RAILROAD & BANKING CO. v. REDWINE

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: January 28, 1952.

GEORGIA RAILROAD & BANKING CO
v.
REDWINE, STATE REVENUE COMMISSIONER

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA.

Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton, Clark, Minton

Author: VINSON

[ 342 U.S. Page 300]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant was incorporated in 1833 by a Special Act of the Georgia General Assembly that included a provision for exemption from taxation.*fn1 In 1945, the Georgia Constitution was amended to provide that "All exemptions from taxation heretofore granted in corporate charters are declared to be henceforth null and void."*fn2 According to appellant's complaint, appellee, who is State Revenue Commissioner, is threatening to act pursuant to this amendment by proceeding against appellant for the

[ 342 U.S. Page 301]

     collection of ad valorem taxes for the year 1939, and all subsequent years, on behalf of the State and every county, school district and municipality through which appellant's lines run.*fn3 Appellant claims that this threatened taxation would be contrary to its legislative charter and would impair the obligation of contract between appellant and the State of Georgia, contrary to Article I, Section 10 of the Federal Constitution.*fn4

This latest phase*fn5 of appellant's frequent litigation over the tax exemption provision of its 1833 charter began when appellant filed suit against appellee's predecessor in a Georgia state court seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Relief was denied without reaching the merits of appellant's claim when the Georgia Supreme Court held that the action was, in effect, an unconsented suit against the State which could not be maintained in the state courts. Musgrove v. Georgia Railroad & Banking Co., 204 Ga. 139, 49 S. E. 2d 26 (1948). We dismissed an appeal from that judgment because it was based upon a nonfederal ground adequate to support it. 335 U.S. 900 (1949).

Thereafter, appellant filed this action in the District Court to enjoin appellee from assessing or collecting ad valorem taxes contrary to its legislative charter. Appellant also asked that appellee's threatened acts be adjudged in violation of a prior decree also entered by the court below and affirmed by this Court. Wright v.

[ 342 U.S. Page 302]

     U. S. C. (Supp. IV) § 1341.*fn8 The remedies now suggested are: (1) suit for injunction in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia; (2) arresting tax execution by affidavits of illegality; and (3) suing the State for refund after payment of taxes. The first route was tried by appellant without success in the Musgrove litigation, supra. The second remedy, the present availability of which was doubted by the three Justices of the Georgia Supreme Court that considered the matter in the appeal case,*fn9 would require the filing of over three hundred separate claims in fourteen different counties to protect the single federal claim asserted by appellant.*fn10 The third remedy, suit for refund after payment, is applicable only to taxes payable directly to the State and amounting to less than 15% of the total taxes in controversy.*fn11 We cannot say that the remedies suggested by the Attorney General afford appellant the "plain, speedy and efficient remedy" necessary to deprive the District Court of jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. (Supp. IV) § 1341.

Second. Passing to the jurisdictional ground upon which the District Court rested its decision, we note that

[ 342 U.S. Page 304]

     the State of Georgia was not named as a party in the District Court. But, since appellee is a state officer, the court below properly considered whether the relief sought against the officer is not, in substance, sought against the sovereign.*fn12 If this action is, in effect, an unconsented suit against the State, the action is barred.*fn13

The District Court characterized appellant's action as one to enforce an alleged contract with the State of Georgia, and, as such, a suit against the State. But appellant's complaint is not framed as a suit for specific performance. It seeks to enjoin appellee from collecting taxes in violation of appellant's rights under the Federal Constitution. This Court has long held that a suit to restrain unconstitutional action threatened by an individual who is a state officer is not a suit against the State.*fn14 These decisions were reexamined and reaffirmed in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), and have been consistently followed to the present day.*fn15 This general rule has been applied in suits against individuals threatening

[ 342 U.S. Page 305]

     to enforce allegedly unconstitutional taxation, including cases where, as here, it is alleged that taxation would impair the obligation of contract. Gunter v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 200 U.S. 273 (1906); Pennoyer v. McConnaughy, 140 U.S. 1 (1891); Allen v. Baltimore & O. R. Co., 114 U.S. 311 (1885).

In re Ayers, 123 U.S. 443 (1887), relied upon below, is not a contrary holding. In that case, complainant had not alleged that officers threatened to tax its property in violation of its constitutional rights. As a result, the Court held the action barred as one in substance directed at the State merely to obtain specific performance of a contract with the State.*fn16 Since appellant seeks to enjoin appellee from a threatened and allegedly unconstitutional invasion of its property, we hold that this action against appellee as an individual is not barred as an unconsented suit against the State.*fn17 The State is free to carry out its functions without judicial interference directed at the

[ 342 U.S. Page 306]

     sovereign or its agents, but this immunity from federal jurisdiction does not extend to individuals who act as officers without constitutional authority.

Accordingly, we find that the District Court was not deprived of jurisdiction in this case on either the ground that it is a suit against the State or that "plain, speedy and efficient" remedies are available to appellant in the state courts. Since the District Court did not determine whether appellee was bound by the Wright decree and did not address itself to the merits of appellant's claim, we do not pass upon these questions but remand the case to the District Court for further proceedings.

Reversed and remanded.

Disposition

85 F.Supp. 749, reversed and remanded.

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, concurring.

It is my view that appellant's suit is in reality against the State of Georgia to enjoin a breach of contract. It is the same contract that was involved in Wright v. Georgia R. & Banking Co., 216 U.S. 420. In that case the Court held that the Contract Clause of the Constitution barred Georgia from breaching her agreement granting appellant tax immunity by legislative act.

The suit in the Wright case was against a state officer. But the Attorney General appeared and defended the case on the merits. It is clear to me that the Attorney General represented and spoke for the interests of Georgia in the lower court and in this Court. The Georgia Constitution and statutes authorized the Governor to allow the Attorney General to defend suits involving the State's interests. See Ga. Code of 1895, §§ 23, 220; Ga. Const. of 1877, Art. VI, § X, par. II. The decree that was entered adjudicated the rights of Georgia, declaring her bound by the contract, stating that the Acts of the Georgia Legislature involved in the litigation were "a valid and binding contract between the State of Georgia"

[ 342 U.S. Page 307]

     and the present appellant. There were no special circumstances, as in Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, that would keep the suit from being res judicata against the State.

I would conclude that Georgia is bound by the decree in the Wright case. Therefore, relief is now available in the form of an ancillary exercise of the District Court's equity jurisdiction to protect appellant's rights secured under the prior decree. Gunter v. Atlantic Coast Line, 200 U.S. 273.


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