Belcher v. Linn,
65 U.S. 508 (1860)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Belcher v. Linn, 65 U.S. 24 How. 508 508 (1860)

Belcher v. Linn

65 U.S. (24 How.) 508




Where there was a controversy with respect to the amount of duties properly payable upon an importation, the collector and importers entered into an agreement to submit samples of the article to the board of general appraisers to be convened at New York, and to abide by their appraisement in the same manner and to the same extent as if it had been made by merchant appraisers, regularly appointed according to law.

The article imported was called in the invoice "concentrated molasses," which is syrup boiled down to a denser consistency, and thus evaporating the watery particles until the point of crystallization is reached.

The appraisers decided that this article was, in point of fact, a species of green sugar, and that the invoice and entry were erroneous, not only with respect to the value affixed to the article, but also as to its description.

Green sugar was subject to an export duty, but molasses was not. They therefore added, as appeared by their report, a sum equal to the amount of that duty, although none such had been paid. But the statement annexed to the report described the addition made thus, "to add export duty on."


1. That in the absence of fraud, the decision of the appraisers as to the character of the article and the dutiable value of the importations was final and conclusive.

2. That the report and statement must be construed together, and that by their true construction they showed, irrespective of the parol testimony, that the addition was made, not as an export duty, but to bring up the invoice valuation to the actual market value of the merchandise at the place of exportation.

3. That if the words "to add export duty on" were of doubtful signification, and must be separately considered, then the case would be one where parol testimony would be admissible, so that, in either point of view, there was no error in the action of the circuit court.

4. That the importer was not entitled to recover on account of the leakage while the merchandise was detained for the purpose of the appraisement.

5. That the assessment of duties is properly made upon the quantity of merchandise entered at the custom house.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

Page 65 U. S. 516

MR. JUSTICE CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the Court.

The suit was commenced on the sixteenth day of September, 1854. It was an action of assumpsit, and the declaration contained a count for money had and received, together with three special counts, which are set forth at large in the transcript. Plaintiffs were merchants residing at St. Louis, in the state of Missouri, and the defendant was the surveyor of that port, appointed under the act of the second of March, 1831, upon whom, by that law, were devolved the duties of collector, and the suit was instituted by the present plaintiffs against the defendant as such collector, to recover an alleged excess of duties which they had previously paid under protest on six cargoes of merchandise invoiced, among other things, as concentrated molasses. Other causes of action were also set forth in some of the special counts, to which reference will hereafter be made. Defendant pleaded that he never undertook and promised in manner and form as the plaintiffs had declared against him, and upon that issue the parties went to trial. All of the merchandise on which the duties were exacted and paid was imported from Matanzas, in the Island of Cuba, and was consigned to the plaintiffs, who were doing business at St. Louis. Under the laws of the United States, merchandise cannot be imported direct from a foreign port to the port of St. Louis, but all such importations are required to be first entered at the custom house in New Orleans. Some brief reference to the usual course of proceeding in such cases, as required by law and the regulations of the Treasury Department, becomes indispensable, in order that the precise nature of the controversy may be fully understood. Upon the arrival at New Orleans of a vessel from a foreign port having on board merchandise exported from a foreign port and consigned to a merchant at St. Louis, it is required, if the merchandise is subject to an import duty under the laws of the United States, that an entry of the same shall be made at the custom house in New Orleans in the same manner as required in case of entry for consumption, and the officers of the customs at that

Page 65 U. S. 517

port then proceed to ascertain and assess the duties to be paid to the United States, precisely in the same way as if the merchandise had been destined for that market; whereupon a bond, called a transportation bond, is given by the importer or his agent to the United States, conditioned that the packages described in the invoice, with marks corresponding, thereto, shall, within a specified time, be delivered to the surveyor and acting collector of the port of St. Louis. Notice of the proceedings ought then to be given by the collector of the port where the duties were ascertained and assessed to the acting collector of the port to which the merchandise is destined; and when the packages are received at the port of destination, they are placed in the custody of the acting collector of that port, who receives the duties, giving notice of that fact to the collector of the port where they were ascertained and assessed, and the collector of the latter port is then authorized by law to cancel the transportation bond given by the importer. Six vessels arrived at New Orleans, from Matanzas, in May and June, 1853, having on board merchandise shipped from the latter port, and consigned to the plaintiffs, and it appeared that certain portions of their respective cargoes were invoiced as concentrated molasses. Pursuant to the usual course of proceedings in such cases, the plaintiffs, on the arrival of the vessels at New Orleans, made separate entries of the respective cargoes, as required by law, at the custom house of that port, in order that the duties due to the United States might be ascertained and assessed. In making the entries, however, they followed the invoice, describing the merchandise in question as concentrated molasses, and carrying out the dutiable value accordingly, without making any addition in the entry to the cost and value of the article on account of its peculiar character. One of the entries was made on the tenth day of May, 1853, and the last two were made on the sixth day of June, in the same year. Conforming to the requirements of law, the collector of the port submitted the matter to the local appraisers to appraise, estimate, and ascertain, the dutiable value of the merchandise, and they added one-half real per arroba, equal to six and one-fourth

Page 65 U. S. 518

cents for every twenty-five pounds Spanish weight, to the invoice valuation of the merchandise. From that decision the plaintiffs appealed, and called for an appraisal of the actual value of the goods in the foreign market by merchant appraisers. They, the plaintiffs, informed the collector on the eleventh day of June, 1853, that they should appeal, and on the fourteenth day of the same month the collector notified them that the appeal was allowed, but stated that he should not appoint appraisers until he heard from the Department, as he desired the aid of a general appraiser. Considerable delay ensued; but on the 28th day of September, of the same year, the collector, acting under the instructions of the Secretary of the Treasury, and the plaintiffs, entered into a written agreement to the effect that they would substitute samples in the place of the merchandise, and submit the matters in dispute in all the cases to the determination of the board of general appraisers to be convened at the City of New York as soon as practicable, stipulating, at the same time, to abide by the appraisement of the board "in the same manner, and to the same extent, as if it had been made by merchant appraisers regularly appointed according to law." Accordingly, the general appraisers heard the several appeals, and on the nineteenth day of October, 1853, made a report in writing. Concentrated molasses constituted a portion of the cargo in five of the cases appealed, and it appeared by the report of the general appraisers that in all those cases they made an addition to the invoice value of that portion of the merchandise embraced in the entry. Of the five, it will be sufficient to give one as an example of the rest. It is as follows: "To add export duty on 522,338 lbs., at 87 1/2 cts. per 500 lbs." Their reasons for making the addition are fully stated in their report. After stating that they had examined the samples, they say:

"The board assume that both the concentrated melado and concentrated molasses are sugar in a green state, and they are borne out in this view of the case by the invoices themselves, the concentrated molasses in every case being invoiced per arroba as sugar, and not per keg as molasses; the casks are also charged as sugar casks. The concentrated molasses is

Page 65 U. S. 519

not susceptible of being gauged, which is another evidence that its proper classification is sugar."

Plaintiffs proved that the goods were assessed at New Orleans, according to that appraisement, and that they afterwards paid the duties under protest, to the defendant at St. Louis. They protested against the including in the computation of the dutiable value of the goods any sum whatever for export duty, averring in the protest that no such duty was paid by them, or demanded by the authorities at the place of exportation. Testimony was also introduced by the plaintiffs tending to show that concentrated molasses was well known in the foreign market; that it was not at that time regarded as sugar; that it was not subject to the sugar duty; that no such duty was demanded or paid; and that the invoice price represented the fair market value. Their witnesses were cross-examined by the defendant, and from the cross-examination it appeared that the plaintiffs, in 1852, set up a sugar-boiling establishment at Matanzas, and that among the products manufactured by them was the article invoiced as concentrated molasses, which it seems is melado, or syrup boiled down to a denser consistency, and is manufactured by boiling the melado, and thus evaporating the watery portions until the point of crystallization is reached. Concentrated molasses, as the witnesses state, is a recent manufacture, and was unknown in the foreign market until about the time plaintiffs commenced to produce it from their establishment. When the article first appeared, the authorities for a short time allowed it to be exported without exacting any duty; but it was soon classes with green sugars, and charged with an export duty of eighty-seven and a half cents for every twenty arrobas of twenty-five pounds Spanish weight. Like sugar, it is sold, invoiced, and valued by weight, and not by measure, like the ordinary article of molasses. On the other hand, the defendant called and examined one of the general appraisers. Among other things, he testified that:

"The board did make alterations from the invoice price or value by adding eighty-seven and a half cents for each five hundred pounds, invoice weight, and two reals or twenty-five

Page 65 U. S. 520

cents to each barrel, in order to raise the same to the actual market value, or wholesale price, at the period of exportation in the principal markets of the country from which the same had been imported."

"The sums in figures set out opposite these several entries were additions made by the board to the invoice value of the merchandise. The 87 1/2 cents for each 500 pounds was added to make the market value of the sugars called 'concentrated molasses,' and 25 cents to each barrel was added to make the market value of the barrel."

"The term 'to add export duty on' was used as expressive of the principle upon which this sum was added, and not as conveying the supposition or belief that an export duty had been paid by the importers, or even that such an export duty was legally due to the Cuban government; but it was added upon the principle that if the sum of 87 1/2 cents per each 500 pounds was not payable for export duty, the value of the merchandise was thereby increased just that sum in the foreign market. Sugars being the basis of the appraisement, and 87 1/2 cents per each 500 pounds being the export duty on the same, that sum was added to make the true foreign market value at the period of exportation."

To all this testimony the plaintiffs objected, but it was admitted by the court, and the plaintiffs excepted.

Thirteen points were then presented by the plaintiffs for instruction to the jury, all of which the court refused to give, and on the prayer of the defendant the jury were instructed, that "on the whole evidence the plaintiffs cannot recover." Under the rulings and instructions of the court the jury returned their verdict in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiffs excepted to the refusal of the court to instruct the jury as requested, and to the instruction given, that they, the plaintiffs, were not entitled to recover. On this branch of the case two questions are presented for decision:

1. Whether the addition was lawfully made to the invoice valuation of the merchandise described in the entry as concentrated molasses.

2. Whether the testimony of the general appraiser, as to the action of the board in making the appraisement, was properly admitted.

Page 65 U. S. 521

1. It is provided by the Act of the third of March, 1851, to the effect that the collector, in all importations subject to an ad valorem duty, shall cause the actual market value or wholesale price of the importation at the period and place of exportation to be appraised, estimated, and ascertained, and to such value or price shall be added all costs and charges, except insurance, including in every case a charge for commissions at the usual rates, and by the true construction of the act, and indeed by its very words, that appraisement, estimation, and ascertainment, when regularly made, becomes and is the true value of the importation at the place where the same was entered, "upon which the duties shall be assessed." By the eighth section of the act of the thirteenth of July, 1846, it is also provided that

"It shall be the duty of the collector within whose district dutiable goods may be imported or entered to cause the dutiable value of such imports to be appraised, estimated, and ascertained, in accordance with the provisions of existing laws, and if the appraised value thereof shall exceed ten percent or more the value declared on the entry, then, in addition to the duties imposed by law on the same, there shall be levied, collected, and paid, a duty of twenty percentum ad valorem on such appraised value."

But a proviso is added that under no circumstances shall the duty be assessed upon an amount less than the invoice value, any law of Congress to the contrary, notwithstanding. Importers are required to make an entry of their respective importations, which should always be accompanied by the invoice, and when the invoice is received, the packages for appraisement are designed on the invoice by the collector, who orders one in ten of them to the public store for the purposes of the appraisal. Examination of the selected packages is then made by the local appraisers, and if in their opinion the invoice value is too low, they increase it, and notify their doings to the collector, and if no appeal is taken from their appraisement by the importer, their decision in the premises is final and conclusive as to the dutiable value of the importation. Every importer, however, under those circumstances, has the right to appeal to merchant appraisers.

Page 65 U. S. 522

Merchant appraisers formerly consisted of two merchants, one chosen by the importer and one by the collector, but under existing provisions of law the collector may select a government appraiser, so that in the larger ports the board usually consists of a merchant selected by the importer, and a permanent appraiser selected by the collector. 9 Stat. 630. On the appeal, the merchant appraisers, so called, examine the packages ordered to the public store, appraise, estimate, and ascertain, the actual market value or wholesale value thereof, at the period of exportation to the United States, in the principal markets of the country from which the goods were imported, and certify the value so appraised, estimated, and ascertained, to the collector, and in the absence of fraud, their decision is final and conclusive, and their appraisement in contemplation of law becomes, for the purposes of calculating and assessing the duties due to the United States, the true dutiable value of the importation. Act August 30, 1842, sec. 17, 5 Stat. 564; Appraisement Act, March 3, 1851, sec. 1, 9 Stat. 631. As was said by this Court in Bartlett v. Kane, 16 How. 272, the appraisers are appointed with powers, by all reasonable ways and means, to appraise, estimate, and ascertain the true and actual market value and wholesale price of the importation. The exercise of these powers involves knowledge, judgment, and discretion. We hold, as was held in that case, that when power or jurisdiction is delegated to any public officer or tribunal over a subject matter, and its exercise is confided to his or their discretion, the acts so done are in general binding and valid as to the subject matter. The only questions which can arise between an individual and the public or any person denying their validity are power in the officer and fraud in the party. All other questions are settled by the decision made or the act done by the tribunal or officer, whether executive, legislative, judicial, or special, unless an appeal or other revision is provided for by some appellate or supervisory tribunal prescribed by law. United States v. Arredondo, 6 Pet. 691; Rankin v. Hoyt, 4 How. 327; Stairs v. Peaslee, 18 How. 524.

One of the questions presented in the case last cited was whether, in

Page 65 U. S. 523

estimating the dutiable value of a certain article called "cutch," the appraisers should have taken the value at the market of Calcutta, or London and Liverpool, or Halifax, at the period of exportation from the latter port, and THE CHIEF JUSTICE, speaking for the whole Court, held that in estimating the value of the cutch, it was the duty of the appraiser to determine what were the principal markets of the country from which it was exported into the United States, and that their decision that London and Liverpool were the principal markets for the article was conclusive. Applying these principles to the present case, it follows, we think, wholly irrespective of the parol testimony, that the value of the importations certified to the collector constituted the true and actual dutiable value of the merchandise embraced in the respective entries made by the importers, and there is nothing in the statement accompanying the report, when considered in connection with the report itself, that is in any manner inconsistent with the view here taken as to the legal effect of their action in the premises. On the contrary, it is difficult to misconstrue their report. They determine, in the first place, that the article described in the invoice and entry as concentrated molasses was in point of fact a species of green sugar, and that the invoice and entry were erroneous, not only with respect to the value affixed to the article, but also as to its description. Payment of duties cannot be avoided because the importation is misdescribed either in the invoice or the entry or in both at the same time. Appraisers are required to appraise, estimate, and ascertain the true market value of the importation no matter what name may be affixed to it by the importer, and he cannot be benefited in the estimation of the duties here by the fact that, by accident or otherwise, he succeeded in exporting the packages from the foreign country without being subjected to the usual and lawful exactions there imposed. New manufactures naturally and constantly give rise to new questions is regard to revenue. but it cannot operate to benefit the plaintiffs in this controversy that the subordinate authorities at the place of exportation were for a time misled or deceived as to the real character of the product in question, or that they

Page 65 U. S. 524

mistook the true nature of their duty. Green sugar was subject to the export duty, but molasses was not; still, if the importations in question ought in fact to have been classed with the former, then it is clear that the importer, as matter of legal obligation, ought to have paid the export duty, and the determination of the appraisers was not an unreasonable one; that it was necessary to add a sum to the invoice valuation equal to the export duty to which it would have been subjected, if it had been correctly invoiced, in order to bring the dutiable value up to the actual market value or wholesale price in the foreign market. Both the report and the statement annexed to it must be taken in pari materia and considered together, and when so construed, they do not appear to differ in any respect from the explanations given of them in the testimony of the general appraiser. Without regard to that testimony, it is not possible to hold that the board added the export duty to the several importations, regarding the article as molasses, because they expressly state in the outset that they assume that concentrated molasses is sugar in a green state, and proceed to give their reasons for the conclusion, deducing the reasons given from the various invoices, which, as they affirm, bear them out in that view of the case. It is clear, therefore, that the appraisers did not add the eighty-seven and a half cents to the invoice valuation as an export duty on molasses, and it is conceded that sugar in a green state was by law subject to the export duty, so that putting the parol testimony in question out of the case, still the plaintiffs are not entitled to recover.

2. But suppose it to be otherwise, and that the words, "to add export duty on," as contained in the statement annexed to the report, are to be separately considered; still it is difficult to see how the admission can be of any service to the plaintiffs. They must still maintain that the importations were in fact molasses, and that the export duty was added by the appraisers to the invoice valuation of molasses as such, else they have no standing in court, for they do not deny that if the produce in question was really sugar in a green state, that it was competent for the appraisers to correct the misdescription

Page 65 U. S. 525

in the invoice and entry, or disregard it, so as to perform their duty as required by law. Unless they have that right, then the grossest frauds may be committed by an importer with perfect impunity; and if they have that right, as clearly they must, then it follows that any dispute as to the nature of the produce imported, and its consequent classification in the invoice and entry, were questions of fact within the jurisdiction of the appraisers, and their decision is final and conclusive. On the other hand, if it be admitted that the words "to add export duty on" are ambiguous and of doubtful signification, then the case would be one where parol testimony would be admissible to explain the ambiguity, by showing what was done by the appraisers, and the manner in which the value of the importations was appraised, estimated, and ascertained. United States v. Southmayd, 9 How. 638; Greeley v. Thompson, 10 How. 228; Greeley v. Burgess, 18 How. 413; Samson v. Peaslee, 20 How. 574; Rankin v. Hoyt, 4 How. 335.

3. Plaintiffs also claimed in some of the counts of the declaration to recover back certain duties alleged to have been illegally exacted of them by the defendant, on certain barrels exported empty by them from the United States to Matanzas, and brought back filled with concentrated molasses. That claim, however, is not pressed in the case, because the same claim is embraced in another case, which is also before the court.

4. Another claim is to recover damage on account of the delay which ensued in completing the appraisement, and the consequent leakage and loss of the concentrated molasses; but we are not able to see any just ground for the claim, on the facts disclosed in the record. Appraisement of the goods is required by law, and as the detention of the goods is the necessary consequence of that requirement, it cannot be held, under the circumstances of this case, that it affords any ground of action against the defendant. Duties are required by law to be assessed on the goods, and the assessment is uniformly made on the quantity entered at the custom house, without any allowance whatever for ordinary leakage and deterioration.

Page 65 U. S. 526

Marriott v. Brune, 9 How. 619; Lawrence v. Caswell, 13 How. 438. For these reasons we are of the opinion that there is no error in the record, and the judgment of the circuit court is therefore affirmed, with costs.

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