Dobbins v. Commissioners of Erie County
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41 U.S. 435 (1842)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Dobbins v. Commissioners of Erie County, 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 435 435 (1842)
Dobbins v. Commissioners of Erie County
41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 435
A captain of the United States revenue cutter on the Erie station in Pennsylvania was rated and assessed for county taxes, as an officer of the United States, for his office. Held that he was not liable to be rated and assessed for his office under the United States for county rates and levies.
The question presented in the case before the courts of Pennsylvania was whether the office of captain of the revenue cutter of the United States was liable to be assessed for taxes under the laws of Pennsylvania. The validity of the laws of Pennsylvania imposing such taxes was in question in the case on the ground that the laws were repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the court decided in favor of the validity of the law. The Supreme Court of the United States has jurisdiction on a writ of error in such a case.
Taxation is a sacred right, essential to the existence of government -- an incident of sovereignty. The right of legislation is coextensive with the incident, to attach it upon all persons and property within the jurisdiction of a state. But in our system, there are limitations upon that right. There is a concurrent right of legislation in the states, and the United States, except as both are restrained by the Constitution of the United States. Both are restrained by express prohibitions in the Constitution, and the states by such as are reciprocally implied, when the exercise of the right by a state conflicts with the perfect execution of another sovereign power delegated to the United States. That occurs when taxation by a state acts upon the instruments and emoluments and persons which the United States may use and employ as necessary and proper means to execute their sovereign power. The government of the United States is supreme within its sphere of action. The means necessary and proper to carry into effect the powers in the Constitution are in Congress.
The compensation of an officer of the United States is fixed by a law made by Congress. It is in its exclusive discretion to declare what shall be given. It exercises the discretion and fixes the amount, and confers upon the officer the right to receive
it when it has been earned. Any law of a state imposing a tax upon the office, diminishing the recompense, is in conflict with the law of the United States which secures the allowance to the officer.
In the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, the plaintiff in error instituted an action against the commissioners of Erie County the purpose of which was to have a decision on the right asserted by the commissioners of the county to assess and collect taxes on the office of the plaintiff, a citizen, and residing in
Erie County, Pennsylvania, a captain of the United States revenue cutter. The following case was stated and submitted to the court, either party to have the right to prosecute a writ of error.
"The plaintiff is and has been for the last eight years an officer of the United States, to-wit, captain of the United States revenue cutter service, and ever since his appointment has been in service in command of the United States revenue cutter Erie, on the Erie station. He has been rated and assessed with county taxes for the last three years, to-wit, 1835, 1836 and 1837, as such officer of the United States, for his office, as such, valued at $500, which taxes so rated and assessed and paid by the plaintiff amount to the sum of $10.75. The question submitted to the court is whether the plaintiff is liable to be rated and assessed for his office under the United States for county rates and levies; if he is, then judgment to be entered for the defendants; if not, then judgment to be entered for the plaintiff for the sum of $10.75."
The court of common pleas gave judgment for the plaintiff, and the case was removed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in which court the judgment was reversed and a judgment was entered for the Commissioner of Erie County. The plaintiff, Daniel Dobbins, prosecuted this writ of error.