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January 11, 1904



Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, White, Peckham, McKenna, Holmes, Day

Author: Brewer

[ 192 U.S. Page 184]

 MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

Two questions are presented -- one of jurisdiction and the other on the merits.

With regard to the first, the decision of the Supreme Court of the State is not controlling. It is not the province of a state court to determine our jurisdiction; and further, the Missouri statute, providing for a review of certain cases by the Supreme Court, is not identical with but more limited than section 709, Rev. Stat., which prescribes our jurisdiction over final judgments of state courts.

It is contended that the only question determined by the state court was the applicability of the equitable doctrine of subrogation, that no statute of Congress was suggested giving a right of subrogation in cases like this, and therefore that the decision of the state court rested upon a matter of general law. But the answer of the defendant, after stating the circumstances

[ 192 U.S. Page 185]

     of the payment by the several carriers, alleged that it was "entitled to the first lien on said goods under the laws of the United States for the amount of said duties." Although no single statute was mentioned, it claimed a lien on the goods under and by virtue of the laws of the United States, and thus directly called for a determination of Federal right. Crowell v. Randell, 10 Pet. 368; Bridge Proprietors v. Hoboken Co., 1 Wall. 116, 142; Furman v. Nichol, 8 Wall. 44, 56; Dooley v. Smith, 13 Wall. 604. The question in fact presented and decided was not simply the scope and applicability of the doctrine of subrogation, but rather to what extent, considering the obligations cast by the revenue laws and the duties of common carriers as between themselves and the shipper, the carrier was protected by the laws of the United States in paying custom duties exacted under them. When we stop to consider the great volume of imports handled almost exclusively by common carriers, the owners or consignees being often in the interior of the country, this is obviously a question of supreme importance. And this question is solved not alone upon general principles of law, but involves an enquiry as to the effect of exactions made under authority of the statutes of the United States. We are, by section 709, Rev. Stat., given jurisdiction over the final judgments of state courts "where any title, right, privilege, or immunity is claimed under the Constitution, or any treaty or statute of, or commission held or authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision is against the title, right, privilege, or immunity specially set up or claimed." The contention of the railroad company is that payment of duties exacted under the statutes of the United States does not operate simply to release the goods, but also gives in cases like the present, to the carrier, the right and privilege of maintaining possession until it is reimbursed these duties. Is the statute to be considered simply as a demand for money, or does it also carry a grant to one situated as this carrier, of a right and privilege of possession? This right and privilege was specially set up and

[ 192 U.S. Page 186]

     claimed by the railroad company. Whether it existed was the substantial question presented and decided. And whether rightly or wrongly decided the presentation of question, the claim of the right and privilege was, when denied by the state court, sufficient to give this court jurisdiction.

We pass, therefore, to consider the merits. Do the laws of the United States exacting the payment of duties at ports of entry justify the carrier in paying those duties, and give to it a lien therefor as against the owner? It must be remembered that the Government has not prescribed payment simply at the place of delivery, but has named the ports of entry at which, and at which only, payment can be made. Must the carrier insist that the owner shall be present at the place of entry to himself make payment, or, after notifying the owner, leave the goods in the hands of the government officials to be held for the charges thereon, or, may the carrier pay the charges and maintain possession until reimbursed by the owner? It is unnecessary to consider what rights would exist if it were alleged that the goods imported were free from duty, or that there had been overcharges or wrongful conduct on the part of the Government officials. Here the regularity of the proceedings on the part of the Government officials and the correct amount of the duties collected are unquestioned.

We are of opinion that the custom laws of the United States are potent to fully protect the carrier in the payment of the legal duties charged upon goods in its possession. In order to fully understand the force and scope of any statute or body of statutes we must have regard to the conditions and circumstances for which the legislation was intended and under which it is to become operative. We are not narrowly to read the letter and ignore the state of affairs to which that legislation was intended and is applicable. As we have said, the great body of imports is subject to duties, and payment thereof is by ...

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