1. It is the duty of the federal appellate courts, as well as
the trial court, to ascertain and apply the state law where that
law controls the decision. P. 322 U. S.
2. A judgment of a federal court in a case ruled by state law,
correctly applying that law as authoritatively declared by the
state courts when the judgment was rendered, must be reversed on
appellate review if, in the meantime, the state courts have
disapproved their former rulings and adopted different ones. P.
322 U. S.
3. This Court ordinarily will not decide questions of state law
which may conveniently be decided first by the court whose judgment
is here on review. P. 322 U. S.
4. Upon review here of a judgment of the Circuit Court of
Appeals in a case in which the decision is controlled by state law,
it appears that a decision of the highest court of the State,
rendered subsequently to those on which the Circuit Court of
Appeals relied, has at least raised such doubt as to the applicable
state law as to require its reexamination. The judgment therefore
is vacated, and the cause remanded to the Circuit Court of Appeals
for reconsideration in the light of the subsequent state court
decision. P. 322 U. S.
137 F.2d 383 vacated.
Page 322 U. S. 233
Certiorari, 321 U.S. 759, to review the affirmance of an order
directing a levy of taxes to provide funds for the payment of
Respondents are owners of defaulted paving bonds issued by the
City of Poteau in LeFlore County, Oklahoma, the bonds being secured
by assessments for benefits, payable in ten annual installments,
upon the property in two improvement districts established by the
city, including certain lots owned by the county, and others
belonging to the city, which it later conveyed to the county.
Respondents brought suit in 1937 in the District Court for Eastern
Oklahoma against the county, its Board of Commissioners, and other
officers of the county and city, alleging diversity of citizenship,
and seeking a judgment fixing the county's liability under state
law for the assessments and asking mandamus to compel a tax levy by
the county officials for the payment of the overdue assessments,
and other relief.
The District Court dismissed the complaint. The Circuit Court of
Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the cause to
the District Court with directions to determine the amounts due on
the respective assessments against the lots in question, and, in
the event of failure to provide funds for the payment of the
judgment, then to entertain jurisdiction in an ancillary proceeding
in mandamus to compel the necessary tax levies. Dwyer v.
97 F.2d 823. The District Court entered
judgment accordingly, retaining jurisdiction for such action as
might be necessary to effectuate the judgment.
Page 322 U. S. 234
No funds having been provided for payment of the overdue
assessments, respondents brought the present proceeding in the
District Court for mandamus to compel petitioners, County
Commissioners, and other county officers to make the tax levies
necessary for payment of the amounts adjudged to be due. The
District Court gave judgment for mandamus, in effect directing
petitioners, beginning with the fiscal year 1942-1943, to make ten
annual levies in connection with the county general fund levies,
sufficient to pay successively the ten assessment installments
which became due and payable in the years 1925 to 1934 inclusive,
with interest at 12% from the due date of the annual installments
until August 13, 1937, the date when the complaint was filed, and
thereafter with interest at the rate of 6% per annum upon the
aggregate of such installments and interest already accrued.
One of the defenses to the petition for mandamus in the District
Court was that, under Oklahoma law, a county is without authority
to levy and collect a tax in one year to pay improvement
assessments which became due in an earlier year. This defense was
urged on appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals, which overruled it
and affirmed the judgment of the District Court, 137 F.2d 383,
after an examination of the Oklahoma authorities, including
Independent School District No. 39 v. Exchange National
164 Okl. 176, 23 P.2d 210
First National Bank in Wichita v. Board of Education,
Okl. 164, 49 P.2d 1077
Board of Education v. Johnston,
189 Okl. 172, 115 P.2d 132
and Wilson v. City of Hollis,
decided by the Oklahoma
Supreme Court on October 6, 1942, and not officially reported. The
Court of Appeals found none of these cases to be precisely in
point, but concluded that the Supreme Court of Oklahoma had
consistently and pointedly avoided the announcement of the rule
contended for. It accordingly held that the District Court had
correctly directed tax levies to provide for payment, from the
Page 322 U. S. 235
general tax fund, of the overdue installments of the improvement
assessments, with interest as prescribed.
Petitioners filed a timely petition for rehearing which was
denied on September 1, 1943. On December 17, 1943, petitioners
moved for leave to file a second petition for rehearing, which the
Circuit Court of Appeals denied. In their second petition,
petitioners brought to the attention of the court and relied upon
an opinion of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in Wilson v. City
of October 23, 1943, ___ Okla. ___, 142 P.2d 633
which had superseded its earlier opinion on which the Circuit Court
of Appeals had relied in its opinion in this case. Petitioners
contended that, by its later opinion, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma
had determined that Oklahoma law did not authorize the levy of a
general fund tax to pay assessment installments which fell due in
prior years, but that such installments could be paid only from a
sinking fund levy, and that no statutory penalties or additional
interest for delinquency could be collected.
In its second opinion, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma reexamined
in detail the mode of enforcing past due installments of
improvement assessments against the property of municipalities and
counties in Oklahoma. It differentiated between the liability of
municipally owned and privately owned property located within
improvement districts, and it appears to have held, with respect to
the former, that, under the applicable provisions of the Oklahoma
statutes, mandamus to enforce the levy of a general fund tax will
lie only in the year in which the assessment installment falls due,
that money from the general fund cannot be applied to the payment
of obligations of a prior fiscal year, and that "no delinquency
that will carry with it additional interest or penalty can accrue
against public property." It said that judgment could be rendered
against a county or municipality for past due installments which
could be paid as are other judgments against a
Page 322 U. S. 236
county or municipality under Okla.Const. Art. 10, § 28 and 62
O.S.1941 § 431 et seq., i.e.,
in three annual installments
out of sinking fund levies. In announcing these conclusions, the
Supreme Court of Oklahoma stated that it found confusion arising
out of its decisions on this subject, and that it was forced to
reexamine its earlier decisions, including some of those on which
the Circuit Court of Appeals had relied in deciding this case, to
differentiate some, and to bring others into conformity with its
conclusions announced in the Wilson
case. In particular,
it declared that Independent School District No. 39 v. Exchange
National Co., supra,
and First National Bank in Wichita v.
Board of Education, supra,
were in part overruled.
State law is the controlling rule of decision in this case as to
both substantive and procedural rights of the parties. Erie
Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U. S. 64
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, rules 69(a), 81(b), 28 U.S.C.
following § 723c. It is the duty of the federal appellate courts,
as well as the trial court, to ascertain and apply the state law
where, as in this case, it controls decision. Meredith v.
Winter Haven, 320 U. S. 228
a judgment of a federal court ruled by state law and correctly
applying that law as authoritatively declared by the state courts
when the judgment was rendered must be reversed on appellate review
if, in the meantime, the state courts have disapproved of their
former rulings and adopted different ones.
"Until such time as the case is no longer sub judice,
the duty rests upon federal courts to apply state law under the
Rules of Decision statute in accordance with the then controlling
decision of the highest state court."
Vandenbark v. Owens-Illinois Co., 311 U.
, 311 U. S.
The second opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in the
case has at least raised such doubt as to the
applicable Oklahoma law as to require its reexamination
Page 322 U. S. 237
in the light of that opinion and of later decisions of the
Supreme Court of Oklahoma on which respondents rely, before
pronouncement of a final judgment in the case by the federal
courts. That doubt is not to be resolved in the first instance by
this Court. We have often had occasion to point out the importance
to the orderly judicial administration of state laws in the federal
courts that questions of state law required to be decided here
should first be considered and decided by the state or federal
court from which the case is brought to this Court for review.
Dorchy v. Kansas, 264 U. S. 286
264 U. S.
-291; Missouri ex rel. Wabash Ry. Co. v. Public
Service Comm'n, 273 U. S. 126
273 U. S. 131
Ruhlin v. New York Life Ins. Co., 304 U.
, 304 U. S.
-207; New York ex rel. Whitman v. Wilson,
318 U. S. 688
318 U. S.
-691. The decision of the highest court of a state on
matters of state law are in general conclusive upon us, and
ordinarily we accept, and therefore do not review, save in
exceptional cases, the considered determination of questions of
state law by the intermediate federal appellate courts, cf.
Ruhlin v. New York Life Ins. Co., supra.
When we are called
upon to decide them, the expression of the views of the judges of
those courts, who are familiar with the intricacies and trends of
local law and practice, if not indispensable, is at least a highly
desirable and important aid to our determination of state law
questions. This Court will not ordinarily decide them without that
aid where they may conveniently first be decided by the court whose
judgment we are called upon to review. See, e.g., Ruhlin v. New
York Life Ins. Co., supra; Rosenthal v. New York Life Ins.
Co., 304 U. S. 263
304 U. S. 264
West v. A.T. & T. Co., 311 U.
, 311 U. S. 241
Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.
, 313 U. S. 497
Meredith v. Winter Haven, supra.
Accordingly, without passing on any of the other contentions of
the parties, we vacate the judgment below and remand the cause to
the Circuit Court of Appeals so that it may reconsider its decision
in the light of the decisions
Page 322 U. S. 238
and opinions of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in the
and later cases.