Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901)

Author: Justice Fuller

Show Summary

Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901)


This is an action brought to recover moneys exacted by the collector of customs at the port of New York as import duties on two shipments of fruit from ports in the Island of Porto Rico to the port of New York in November, 1900.

The treaty ceding Porto Rico to the United States was ratified by the Senate February 6, 1899; Congress passed an act to carry out its obligations March 3, 1899, and the ratifications were exchanged, and the treaty proclaimed April 11, 1899. Then followed the act approved April 12, 1900. 31 Stat. 77, c. 191.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, MR. JUSTICE BREWER, MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, and myself are unable to concur in the opinions and judgment of the Court in this case. The majority widely differ in the reasoning by which the conclusion is reached, although there seems to be concurrence in the view that Porto Rico belongs to the United States, but nevertheless, and notwithstanding the act of Congress, is not a part of the United States subject to the provisions of the Constitution in respect of the levy of taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.

The inquiry is whether the Act of April 12, 1900, so far as it requires the payment of import duties on merchandise brought from a port of Porto Rico as a condition of entry into other ports of the United States, is consistent with the federal Constitution.

The act creates a civil government for Porto Rico, with a governor, secretary, attorney general, and other officers, appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, who, together with five other persons, likewise so appointed and confirmed, are constituted an executive council; local legislative powers are vested in a legislative assembly consisting of the executive council and a house of delegates to be elected; courts are provided for, and, among other things, Porto Rico is constituted a judicial district, with a district judge, attorney, and marshal, to be appointed by the President for the term of four years. The district court is to be called the District Court of the United States for Porto Rico, and to possess, in addition to the ordinary jurisdiction of district courts of the United States, jurisdiction of all cases cognizant in the circuit courts of the United States. The act also provides that

writs of error and appeals from the final decisions of the Supreme Court of Porto Rico and the district court of the United States shall be allowed and may be taken to the Supreme Court of the United States in the same manner and under the same regulations and in the same cases as from the supreme courts of the territories of the United States, and such writs of error and appeal shall be allowed in all cases where the Constitution of the United States, or a treaty thereof, or an act of Congress is brought in question and the right claimed thereunder is denied.

It was also provided that the inhabitants continuing to reside in Porto Rico, who were Spanish subjects on April 11, 1899, and their children born subsequent thereto (except such as should elect to preserve their allegiance to the Crown of Spain), together with citizens of the United States residing in Porto Rico, should

constitute a body politic under the name of The People of Porto Rico, with governmental powers as hereinafter conferred, and with power to sue and be sued as such.

All officials authorized by the act are required to,

before entering upon the duties of their respective offices, take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the laws of Porto Rico.

The second third, fourth, fifth and thirty-eighth sections of the act are printed in the margin.

It will be seen that duties are imposed upon "merchandise coming into Porto Rico from the United States;" "merchandise coming into the United States from Porto Rico;" taxes upon "articles of merchandise of Porto Rican manufacture coming into the United States and withdrawn from consumption or sale" "equal to the internal revenue tax imposed in the United States upon like articles of domestic manufacture;" and "on all articles of merchandise of United States manufacture coming into Porto Rico," "a tax equal in rate and amount to the internal revenue tax imposed in Porto Rico upon the like articles of Porto Rican manufacture."

And it is also provided that all duties collected in Porto Rico on imports from foreign countries and on "merchandise coming into Porto Rico from the United States," and "the gross amount of all collections of duties and taxes in the United States upon articles of merchandise coming from Porto Rico," shall be held as a separate fund and placed "at the disposal of the President to be used for the government and benefit of Porto Rico" until the local government is organized, when

all collections of taxes and duties under this act shall be paid into the treasury of Porto Rico, instead of being paid into the Treasury of the United States.

The first clause of sec. 8 of Article I of the Constitution provides:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

Clauses four, five, and six of section nine are:

No capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration hereinbefore directed to be taken.

No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.

No preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce or revenue to the ports of one state over those of another; nor shall vessels bound to or from one state be obliged to enter, clear, or pay duties in another.

This act on its face does not comply with the rule of uniformity, and that fact is admitted.

The uniformity required by the Constitution is a geographical uniformity, and is only attained when the tax operates with the same force and effect in every place where the subject of it is found. Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41; Head Money Cases, 112 U.S. 594. But it is said that Congress, in attempting to levy these duties, was not exercising power derived from the first clause of sec. 8, or restricted by it, because, in dealing with the territories, Congress exercises unlimited powers of government, and, moreover, that these duties are merely local taxes.

This Court, in 1820, when Marshall was Chief Justice, and Washington, William Johnson, Livingston, Todd, Duvall, and Story were his associates, took a different view of the power of Congress in the matter of laying and collecting taxes, duties, imposts, and excises in the territories, and its ruling in Loughborough v. Blake, 5 Wheat. 317, has never been overruled.

It is said in one of the opinions of the majority that the Chief Justice "made certain observations which have occasioned some embarrassment in other cases." Manifestly this is so in this case, for it is necessary to overrule that decision in order to reach the result herein announced.

The question in Loughborough v. Blake was whether Congress had the right to impose a direct tax on the District of Columbia apart from the grant of exclusive legislation, which carried the power to levy local taxes. The Court held that Congress had such power under the clause in question. The reasoning of Chief Justice Marshall was directed to show that the grant of the power "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," because it was general and without limitation as to place, consequently extended "to all places over which the government extends," and he declared that, if this could be doubted, the doubt was removed by the subsequent words, which modified the grant, "but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." He then said:

It will not be contended that the modification of the power extends to places to which the power itself does not extend. The power, then, to lay and collect duties, imposts, and excises may be exercised, and must be exercised, throughout the United States. Does this term designate the whole, or any particular portion of the American empire? Certainly this question can admit of but one answer. It is the name given to our great republic, which is composed of states and territories. The District of Columbia, or the territory west of the Missouri, is not less within the United States than Maryland or Pennsylvania, and it is not less necessary, on the principles of our Constitution, that uniformity in the imposition of imposts, duties, and excises should be observed in the one than in the other. Since, then, the power to lay and collect taxes, which includes direct taxes, is obviously coextensive with the power to lay and collect duties, imposts, and excises, and since the latter extends throughout the United States, it follows that the power to impose direct taxes also extends throughout the United States.

It is wholly inadmissible to reject the process of reasoning by which the Chief Justice reached and tested the soundness of his conclusion, as merely obiter.

Nor is there any intimation that the ruling turned on the theory that the Constitution irrevocably adhered to the soil of Maryland and Virginia, and therefore accompanied the parts which were ceded to form the District, or that "the tie" between those states and the Constitution "could not be dissolved without at least the consent of the federal and state governments to a formal separation," and that this was not given by the cession and its acceptance in accordance with the constitutional provision itself, and hence that Congress was restricted in the exercise of its powers in the District, while not so in the territories.

So far from that, the Chief Justice held the territories as well as the District to be part of the United States for the purposes of national taxation, and repeated in effect what he had already said in McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 408:

Throughout this vast republic, from the St. Croix to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, revenue is to be collected and expended, armies are to be marched and supported.

Conceding that the power to tax for the purposes of territorial government is implied from the power to govern territory, whether the latter power is attributed to the power to acquire or the power to make needful rules and regulations, these particular duties are nevertheless not local in their nature, but are imposed as in the exercise of national powers. The levy is clearly a regulation of commerce, and a regulation affecting the states and their people as well as this territory and its people. The power of Congress to act directly on the rights and interests of the people of the states can only exist if and as granted by the Constitution. And by the Constitution Congress is vested with power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." The territories are indeed not mentioned by name, and yet commerce between the territories and foreign nations is covered by the clause, which would seem to have been intended to embrace the entire internal as well as foreign commerce of the country.

It is evident that Congress cannot regulate commerce between a territory and the states and other territories in the exercise of the bare power to govern the particular territory, and as this act was framed to operate and does operate on the people of the states, the power to so legislate is apparently rested on the assumption that the right to regulate commerce between the states and territories comes within the commerce clause by necessary implication. Stoutenburgh v. Hennick, 129 U.S. 141.

Accordingly, the Act of Congress of August 8, 1890, entitled "An Act to Limit the Effect of the Regulations of Commerce between the Several states, and with Foreign Countries in Certain Cases," applied in terms to the territories as well as to the states.

In any point of view, the imposition of duties on commerce operates to regulate commerce, and is not a matter of local legislation, and it follows that the levy of these duties was in the exercise of the national power to do so, and subject to the requirement of geographical uniformity.

The fact that the proceeds are devoted by the act to the use of the territory does not make national taxes local. Nobody disputes the source of the power to lay and collect duties geographically uniform and apply the proceeds by a proper appropriation act to the relief of a particular territory, but the destination of the proceeds would not change the source of the power to lay and collect. And that suggestion certainly is not strengthened when based on the diversion of duties collected from all parts of the United States to a territorial treasury before reaching the Treasury of the United States. Clause 7 of sec. 9 of Article I provides that "no money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law," and the proposition that this may be rendered inapplicable if the money is not permitted to be paid in so as to be susceptible of being drawn out is somewhat startling.

It is also urged that Chief Justice Marshall was entirely in fault because, while the grant was general and without limitation as to place, the words "throughout the United States" imposed a limitation as to place so far as the rule of uniformity was concerned -- namely, a limitation to the states as such.

Undoubtedly the view of the Chief Justice was utterly inconsistent with that contention, and, in addition to what has been quoted, he further remarked:

If it be said that the principle of uniformity, established in the Constitution, secures the District from oppression in the imposition of indirect taxes, it is not less true that the principle of apportionment, also established in the Constitution, secures the District from any oppressive exercise of the power to lay and collect direct taxes.

It must be borne in mind that the grant was of the absolute power of taxation for national purposes, wholly unlimited as to place, and subject to only one exception and two qualifications. The exception was that exports could not be taxed at all. The qualifications were that direct taxes must be imposed by the rule of apportionment, and indirect taxes by the rule of uniformity. License Tax Cases, 5 Wall. 462. But, as the power necessarily could be exercised throughout every part of the national domain, state, territory, district, the exception and the qualifications attended its exercise. That is to say, the protection extended to the people of the states extended also to the people of the district and the territories.

In Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41, it is shown that the words "throughout the United States" are but a qualification introduced for the purpose of rendering the uniformity prescribed geographical, and not intrinsic, as would have resulted if they had not been used.

As the grant of the power to lay taxes and duties was unqualified as to place, and the words were added for the sole purpose of preventing the uniformity required from being intrinsic, the intention thereby to circumscribe the area within which the power could operate not only cannot be imputed, but the contrary presumption must prevail.

Taking the words in their natural meaning -- in the sense in which they are frequently and commonly used -- no reason is perceived for disagreeing with the Chief Justice in the view that they were used in this clause to designate the geographical unity known as "The United States," "our great republic, which is composed of states and territories."

Other parts of the Constitution furnish illustrations of the correctness of this view. Thus the Constitution vests Congress with the power "to establish an uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy throughout the United States."

This applies to the territories as well as the states, and has always been recognized in legislation as binding.

Aliens in the territories are made citizens of the United States, and bankrupts residing in the territories are discharged from debts owing citizens of the states, pursuant to uniform rules and laws enacted by Congress in the exercise of this power.

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that

all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside,

and this Court naturally held, in the Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, that the United States included the District and the territories. Mr. Justice Miller observed:

It had been said by eminent judges that no man was a citizen of the United States except as he was a citizen of one of the states composing the Union. Those, therefore, who had been born and resided always in the District of Columbia or in the territories, though within the United States, were not citizens. Whether this proposition was sound or not had never been judicially decided.

And he said the question was put at rest by the amendment, and the distinction between citizenship of the United States and citizenship of a state was clearly recognized and established.

Not only may a man be a citizen of the United States without being a citizen of a state, but an important element is necessary to convert the former into the latter. He must reside within the state to make him a citizen of it, but it is only necessary that he should be born or naturalized in the United States to be a citizen of the Union.

No person is eligible to the office of President unless he has "attained the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States." Clause 5, sec. 1, Art. II.

Would a native-born citizen of Massachusetts be ineligible if he had taken up his residence and resided in one of the territories for so many years that he had not resided altogether fourteen years in the states? When voted for, he must be a citizen of one of the states (clause 3, sec. 1, Art. II; art. 12), but as to length of time must residence in the territories be counted against him?

The Fifteenth Amendment declares that

the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Where does that prohibition on the United States especially apply if not in the territories?

The Thirteenth Amendment says that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude "shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Clearly this prohibition would have operated in the territories if the concluding words had not been added. The history of the times shows that the addition was made in view of the then condition of the country -- the amendment passed the house January 31, 1865 -- and it is, moreover, otherwise applicable than to the territories. Besides, generally speaking, when words are used simply out of abundant caution, the fact carries little weight.

Other illustrations might be adduced, but it is unnecessary to prolong this opinion by giving them.

I repeat that no satisfactory ground has been suggested for restricting the words "throughout the United States," as qualifying the power to impose duties, to the states, and that conclusion is the more to be avoided when we reflect that it rests, in the last analysis, on the assertion of the possession by Congress of unlimited power over the territories.

The government of the United States is the government ordained by the Constitution and possesses the powers conferred by the Constitution.

This original and supreme will organizes the government, and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments. The government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the legislature are defined and limited, and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the Constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may at any time be passed by those intended to be restrained?

Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 176. The opinion of the Court, by Chief Justice Marshall, in that case was delivered at the February term, 1803, and at the October term, 1885, the Court, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, speaking through Mr. Justice Matthews, said:

When we consider the nature and theory of our institutions of government, the principles upon which they are supposed to rest, and review the history of their development, we are constrained to conclude that they do not mean to leave room for the play and action of purely personal and arbitrary power. Sovereignty itself is, of course, not subject to law, for it is the author and source of law; but in our system, while sovereign powers are delegated to the agencies of government, sovereignty itself remains with the people, by whom and for whom all government exists and acts. And the law is the definition and limitation of power.

From Marbury v. Madison to the present day, no utterance of this Court has intimated a doubt that in its operation on the people, by whom and for whom it was established, the national government is a government of enumerated powers, the exercise of which is restricted to the use of means appropriate and plainly adapted to constitutional ends, and which are "not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution."

The powers delegated by the people to their agents are not enlarged by the expansion of the domain within which they are exercised. When the restriction on the exercise of a particular power by a particular agent is ascertained, that is an end of the question.

To hold otherwise is to overthrow the basis of our constitutional law, and moreover, in effect, to reassert the proposition that the states, and not the people, created the government.

It is again to antagonize Chief Justice Marshall, when he said:

The government of the Union, then (whatever may be the influence of this fact on the case), is emphatically and truly a government of the people. In form and in substance, it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them and for their benefit. This government is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers.

4 Wheat. 404.

The prohibitory clauses of the Constitution are many, and they have been repeatedly given effect by this Court in respect of the territories and the District of Columbia.

The underlying principle is indicated by Chief Justice Taney in The Passenger Cases, 7 How. 492, where he maintained the right of the American citizen to free transit in these words:

Living, as we do, under a common government charged with the great concerns of the whole Union, every citizen of the United States, from the most remote states or territories, is entitled to free access, not only to the principal departments established at Washington, but also to its judicial tribunals and public offices in every state and Territory of the Union. . . . For all the great purposes for which the federal government was formed, we are one people, with one common country. We are all citizens of the United States, and, as members of the same community, must have the right to pass and repass through every part of it without interruption, as freely as in our own states.

In Cross v. Harrison, 16 How. 197, it was held that, by the ratification of the treaty with Mexico, "California became a part of the United States," and that

the right claimed to land foreign goods within the United States at any place out of a collection district, if allowed, would be a violation of that provision in the Constitution which enjoins that all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 19 How. 393, the Court was unanimous in holding that the power to legislate respecting a territory was limited by the restrictions of the Constitution, or, as Mr. Justice Curtis put it, by "the express prohibitions on Congress not to do certain things."

Mr. Justice McLean said: "No powers can be exercised which are prohibited by the Constitution, or which are contrary to its spirit."

Mr. Justice Campbell:

I look in vain, among the discussions of the time, for the assertion of a supreme sovereignty for Congress over the territory then belonging to the United States, or that they might thereafter acquire. I seek in vain for an annunciation that a consolidated power had been inaugurated, whose subject comprehended an empire, and which had no restriction but the discretion of Congress.

Chief Justice Taney:

The powers over person and property of which we speak are not only not granted to Congress, but are in express terms denied, and they are forbidden to exercise them. And this prohibition is not confined to the states, but the words are general, and extend to the whole territory over which the Constitution gives it power to legislate, including those portions of it remaining under territorial government, as well as that covered by states. It is a total absence of power everywhere within the dominion of the United States, and places the citizens of a territory, so far as these rights are concerned, on the same footing with citizens of the states, and guards them as firmly and plainly against any inroads which the general government might attempt under the plea of implied or incidental powers.

Many of the later cases were brought from territories over which Congress had professed to "extend the Constitution," or from the District after similar provision, but the decisions did not rest upon the view that the restrictions on Congress were self-imposed, and might be withdrawn at the pleasure of that body.

Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U.S. 1, is a fair illustration, for it was there ruled, citing Webster v. Reid, 11 How. 437; Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 550; Thompson v. Utah, 170 U.S. 343, that

it is beyond doubt at the present day that the provisions of the Constitution of the United States securing the right of trial by jury, whether in civil or in criminal cases, are applicable to the District of Columbia.

No reference whatever was made to section 34 of the Act of February 21, 1871, 16 Stat. 419, c. 62, which, in providing for the election of a delegate for the District, closed with the words:

The person having the greatest number of legal votes shall be declared by the governor to be duly elected, and a certificate thereof shall be given accordingly, and the Constitution and all the laws of the United States which are not locally inapplicable shall have the same force and effect within the said District of Columbia as elsewhere within the United States.

Nor did the Court, in Bauman v. Ross, 167 U.S. 548, attribute the application of the Fifth Amendment to the act of Congress, although it was cited to another point.

The truth is that, as Judge Edmunds wrote,

the instances in which Congress has declared, in statutes organizing territories, that the Constitution and laws should be in force there are no evidence that they were not already there, for Congress and all legislative bodies have often made enactments that in effect merely declared existing law. In such cases, they declare a preexisting truth to ease the doubts of casuists.

Cong.Rec. 56th Cong. 1st Sess., p. 3507.

In Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540, which was a criminal prosecution in the District of Columbia, MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, speaking for the Court, said:

There is nothing in the history of the Constitution or of the original amendments to justify the assertion that the people of this District may be lawfully deprived of the benefit of any of the constitutional guaranties of life, liberty, and property -- especially of the privilege of trial by jury in criminal cases.

And further:

We cannot think that the people of this District have in that regard less rights than those accorded to the people of the territories of the United States.

In Thompson v. Utah, 170 U.S. 343, it was held that a statute of the State of Utah providing for the trial of criminal cases other than capital by a jury of eight was invalid as applied on a trial for a crime committed before Utah was admitted; that it was not

competent for the State of Utah, upon its admission into the Union, to do in respect of Thompson’s crime what the United States could not have done while Utah was a territory,

and that an act of Congress providing for a trial by a jury of eight persons in the Territory of Utah would have been in conflict with the Constitution.

Article VI of the Constitution ordains:

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.

And, as Mr. Justice Curtis observed in United States v. Morris, 1 Curtis 50,

nothing can be clearer than the intention to have the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States in equal force throughout every part of the territory of the United States, alike in all places at all times.

But it is said that an opposite result will be reached if the opinion of Chief Justice Marshall in American Insurance Company v. Canter, 1 Pet. 511, be read

in connection with Art. III, secs. 1 and 2 of the Constitution, vesting "the judicial power of the United States" in "one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges both of the Supreme and inferior courts shall hold their offices during good behavior,"

etc. And it is argued:

As the only judicial power vested in Congress is to create courts whose judges shall hold their offices during good behavior, it necessarily follows that if Congress authorizes the creation of courts and the appointment of judges for a limited time, it must act independently of the Constitution, and upon territory which is not part of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution.

And further that, if the territories

be a part of the United States, it is difficult to see how Congress could create courts in such territories except under the judicial clause of the Constitution.

By the ninth clause of section 8 of Article I, Congress is vested with power "to constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court," while by sec. 1 of Article III, the power is granted to it to establish inferior courts in which the judicial power of the government treated of in that article is vested.

That power was to be exerted over the controversies therein named, and did not relate to the general administration of justice in the territories, which was committed to courts established as part of the territorial government.

What the Chief Justice said was:

These courts, then, are not constitutional courts in which the judicial power conferred by the Constitution on the general government can be deposited. They are incapable of receiving it. They are legislative courts, created in virtue of the general right of sovereignty which exists in the government, or in virtue of that clause which enables Congress to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The jurisdiction with which they are invested is not a part of that judicial power which is defined in the third article of the Constitution, but is conferred by Congress in the execution of those general powers which that body possesses over the territories of the United States.

The Chief Justice was dealing with the subject in view of the nature of the judicial department of the government and the distinction between federal and state jurisdiction, and the conclusion was, to use the language of MR. JUSTICE HARLAN in McAllister v. United States, 141 U.S. 174,

that courts in the territories, created under the plenary municipal authority that Congress possesses over the territories of the United States, are not courts of the United States created under the authority conferred by that article.

But it did not therefore follow that the territories were not parts of the United States, and that the power of Congress in general over them was unlimited; nor was there in any of the discussions on this subject the least intimation to that effect.

And this may justly be said of expressions in some other cases supposed to give color to this doctrine of absolute dominion in dealing with civil rights.

In Murphy v. Ramsey, 114 U.S. 15, Mr. Justice Matthews said:

The personal and civil rights of the inhabitants of the territories are secured to them, as to other citizens, by the principles of constitutional liberty which restrain all the agencies of government, state and national. Their political rights are franchises, which they hold as privileges in the legislative discretion of the Congress of the United States.

In the Mormon Church Case, 136 U.S. 44, Mr. Justice Bradley observed:

Doubtless Congress, in legislating for the territories, would be subject to those fundamental limitations in favor of personal rights which are formulated in the Constitution and its amendments, but these limitations would exist rather by inference and the general spirit of the Constitution, from which Congress derives all its powers, than by any express and direct application of its provisions.

That able judge was referring to the fact that the Constitution does not expressly declare that its prohibitions operate on the power to govern the territories, but, because of the implication that an express provision to that effect might be essential, three members of the Court were constrained to dissent, regarding it, as was said, "of vital consequence that absolute power should never be conceded as belonging under our system of government to any one of its departments."

What was ruled in Murphy v. Ramsey is that in places over which Congress has exclusive local jurisdiction, its power over the political status is plenary.

Much discussion was had at the bar in respect of the citizenship of the inhabitants of Porto Rico, but we are not required to consider that subject at large in these cases. It will be time enough to seek a ford when, if ever, we are brought to the stream.

Yet although we are confined to the question of the validity of certain duties imposed after the organization of Porto Rico as a territory of the United States, a few observations and some references to adjudged cases may well enough be added in view of the line of argument pursued in the concurring opinion.

In American Insurance Company v. Canter, 1 Pet. 541 -- in which, by the way, the Court did not accept the views of Mr. Justice Johnson in the circuit court or of Mr. Webster in argument -- Chief Justice Marshall said:

The course which the argument has taken will require that, in deciding this question, the Court should take into view the relation in which Florida stands to the United States. The Constitution confers absolutely on the government of the Union the powers of making war and of making treaties; consequently that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or by treaty. The usage of the world is, if a nation be not entirely subdued, to consider the holding of conquered territory as a mere military occupation until its fate shall be determined at the treaty of peace. If it be ceded by the treaty, the acquisition is confirmed, and the ceded territory becomes a part of the nation to which it is annexed, either on the terms stipulated in the treaty of cession or on such as its new master shall impose. On such transfer of territory, it has never been held that the relations of the inhabitants with each other undergo any change. Their relations with their former sovereign are dissolved, and new relations are created between them and the government which has acquired their territory. The same act which transfers their country transfers the allegiance of those who remain in it, and the law, which may be denominated political, is necessarily changed, although that which regulates the intercourse and general conduct of individuals remains in force until altered by the newly created power of the state. On the second of February, 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the United States. The sixth article of the treaty of cession contains the following provision:

The inhabitants of the territories which his Catholic Majesty cedes to the United States by this treaty shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the federal Constitution, and admitted to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States.

This treaty is the law of the land, and admits the inhabitants of Florida to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. It is unnecessary to inquire whether this is not their condition independent of stipulation. They do not, however, participate in political power; they do not share in the government till Florida shall become a state. In the meantime, Florida continues to be a territory of the United States, governed by virtue of that clause in the Constitution which empowers Congress "to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." Perhaps the power of governing a territory belonging to the United States, which has not, by becoming a state, acquired the means of self-government, may result necessarily from the facts that it is not within the jurisdiction of any particular state, and is within the power and jurisdiction of the United States. The right to govern may be the inevitable consequence of the right to acquire territory. Whichever may be the source whence the power is derived, the possession of it is unquestioned.

General Halleck (Int.Law, 1st ed., c. 33, § 14), after quoting from Chief Justice Marshall, observed:

This is now a well settled rule of the law of nations, and is universally admitted. Its provisions are clear and simple and easily understood, but it is not so easy to distinguish between what are political and what are municipal laws, and to determine when and how far the constitution and laws of the conqueror change or replace those of the conquered. And in case the government of the new state is a constitutional government of limited and divided powers, questions necessarily arise respecting the authority, which, in the absence of legislative action, can be exercised in the conquered territory after the cessation of war and the conclusion of a treaty of peace. The determination of these questions depends upon the institutions and laws of the new sovereign, which, though conformable to the general rule of the law of nations, affect the construction and application of that rule to particular cases.

In United States v. Percheman, 7 Pet. 87, the Chief Justice said:

The people change their allegiance; their relation to their ancient sovereign is dissolved; but their relations to each other, and their rights of property, remain undisturbed. If this be the modern rule even in cases of conquest, who can doubt its application to the case of an amicable cession of territory? . . . The cession of a territory by its name from one sovereign to another, conveying the compound idea of surrendering at the same time the lands and the people who inhabit them, would be necessarily understood to pass the sovereignty only, and not to interfere with private property.

Again, the court in Pollard’s Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 225:

Every nation acquiring territory, by treaty or otherwise, must hold it subject to the constitution and laws of its own government, and not according to those of the government ceding it.

And in Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway Co. v. McGlinn, 114 U.S. 546:

It is a general rule of public law, recognized and acted upon by the United States, that whenever political jurisdiction and legislative power over any territory are transferred from one nation or sovereign to another, the municipal laws of the country -- that is, laws which are intended for the protection of private rights -- continue in force until abrogated or changed by the new government or sovereign. By the cession, public property passes from one government to the other, but private property remains as before, and with it those municipal laws which are designed to secure its peaceful use and enjoyment. As a matter of course, all laws, ordinances, and regulations in conflict with the political character, institutions, and constitution of the new government are at once displaced. Thus, upon a cession of political jurisdiction and legislative power -- and the latter is involved in the former -- to the United States, the laws of the country in support of an established religion, or abridging the freedom of the press, or authorizing cruel and unusual punishments, and the like, would at once cease to be of obligatory force without any declaration to that effect, and the laws of the country on other subjects would necessarily be superseded by existing laws of the new government upon the same matters. But, with respect to other laws affecting the possession, use, and transfer of property and designed to secure good order and peace in the community and promote its health and prosperity, which are strictly of a municipal character, the rule is general that a change of government leaves them in force until, by direct action of the new government, they are altered or repealed.

When a cession of territory to the United States is completed by the ratification of a treaty, it was stated in Cross v. Harrison, 16 How. 198, that the land ceded becomes a part of the United States, and that, as soon as it becomes so, the territory is subject to the acts which were in force to regulate foreign commerce with the United States, after those had ceased which had been instituted for its regulation as a belligerent right, and the latter ceased after the ratification of the treaty. This statement was made by the justice delivering the opinion, as the result of the discussion and argument which he had already set forth. It was his summing up of what he supposed was decided on that subject in the case in which he was writing.

The new master was, in the instance of Porto Rico, the United States, a constitutional government with limited powers, and the terms which the Constitution itself imposed, or which might be imposed in accordance with the Constitution, were the terms on which the new master took possession.

The power of the United States to acquire territory by conquest, by treaty, or by discovery and occupation is not disputed, nor is the proposition that in all international relations, interests, and responsibilities, the United States is a separate, independent, and sovereign nation; but it does not derive its powers from international law, which, though a part of our municipal law, is not a part of the organic law of the land. The source of national power in this country is the Constitution of the United States, and the government, as to our internal affairs, possesses no inherent sovereign power not derived from that instrument and inconsistent with its letter and spirit.

Doubtless the subjects of the former sovereign are brought by the transfer under the protection of the acquiring power, and are so far forth impressed with its nationality, but it does not follow that they necessarily acquire the full status of citizens. The ninth article of the treaty ceding Porto Rico to the United States provided that Spanish subjects, natives of the Peninsula, residing in the ceded territory might remain or remove, and in case they remained, might preserve their allegiance to the Crown of Spain by making a declaration of their decision to do so, "in default of which declaration they shall be held to have renounced it and to have adopted the nationality of the territory in which they reside."

The same article also contained this paragraph:

The civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by Congress.

This was nothing more than a declaration of the accepted principles of international law applicable to the status of the Spanish subjects and of the native inhabitants. It did not assume that Congress could deprive the inhabitants of ceded territory of rights to which they might be entitled. The grant by Spain could not enlarge the powers of Congress, nor did it purport to secure from the United States a guaranty of civil or political privileges.

Indeed, a treaty which undertook to take away what the Constitution secured, or to enlarge the federal jurisdiction, would be simply void.

It need hardly be said that a treaty cannot change the Constitution, or be held valid if it be in violation of that instrument. This results from the nature and fundamental principles of our government.

The Cherokee Tobacco, 11 Wall. 616, 620.

So Mr. Justice Field, in De Geofroy v. Riggs, 133 U.S. 267:

The treaty power, as expressed in the Constitution, is in terms unlimited except by those restraints which are found in that instrument against the action of the government or of its departments and those arising from the nature of the government itself and of that of the states. It would not be contended that it extends so far as to authorize what the Constitution forbids, or a change in the character of the government or in that of one of the states, or a cession of any portion of the territory of the latter, without its consent.

And it certainly cannot be admitted that the power of Congress to lay and collect taxes and duties can be curtailed by an arrangement made with a foreign nation by the President and two-thirds of a quorum of the Senate. See 2 Tucker on the Constitution §§ 354-356.

In the language of Judge Cooley:

The Constitution itself never yields to treaty or enactment; it neither changes with time nor does it in theory bend to the force of circumstances. It may be amended according to its own permission, but while it stands, it is

a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men at all times and under all circumstances.

Its principles cannot therefore be set aside in order to meet the supposed necessities of great crises.

No doctrine involving more pernicious consequences was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government.

I am not intimating in the least degree that any reason exists for regarding this article to be unconstitutional, but even if it were, the fact of the cession is a fact accomplished, and this Court is concerned only with the question of the power of the government in laying duties in respect of commerce with the territory so ceded.

In the concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE WHITE, we find certain important propositions conceded, some of which are denied or not admitted in the other. These are to the effect that

when an act of any department is challenged because not warranted by the Constitution, the existence of the authority is to be ascertained by determining whether the power has been conferred by the Constitution, either in express terms or by lawful implication;

that, as every function of the government is derived from the Constitution, "that instrument is everywhere and at all times potential insofar as its provisions are applicable;" that

wherever a power is given by the Constitution, and there is a limitation imposed on the authority, such restriction operates upon and confines every action on the subject within its constitutional limits;

that where conditions are brought about to which any particular provision of the Constitution applies, its controlling influence cannot be frustrated by the action of any or all of the departments of the government; that the Constitution has conferred on Congress the right to create such municipal organizations as it may deem best for all the territories of the United States, but every applicable express limitation of the Constitution is in force, and even where there is no express command which applies, there may nevertheless be restrictions of so fundamental a nature that they cannot be transgressed though not expressed in so many words; that every provision of the Constitution which is applicable to the territories is controlling therein, and all the limitations of the Constitution applicable to Congress in governing the territories necessarily limit its power; that in the case of the territories, when a provision of the Constitution is invoked, the question is whether the provision relied on is applicable, and that the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, as well as the qualification of uniformity, restrains Congress from imposing an impost duty on goods coming into the United States from a territory which has been incorporated into and forms a part of the United States.

And it is said that the determination of whether a particular provision is applicable involves an inquiry into the situation of the territory and its relations to the United States, although it does not follow, when the Constitution has withheld all power over a given subject, that such an inquiry is necessary.

The inquiry is stated to be: "Had Porto Rico, at the time of the passage of the act in question, been incorporated into and become an integral part of the United States?" And, the answer being given that it had not, it is held that the rule of uniformity was not applicable.

I submit that that is not the question in this case. The question is whether, when Congress has created a civil government for Porto Rico, has constituted its inhabitants a body politic, has given it a governor and other officers, a legislative assembly, and courts, with right of appeal to this Court, Congress can, in the same act and in the exercise of the power conferred by the first clause of section eight, impose duties on the commerce between Porto Rico and the states and other territories in contravention of the rule of uniformity qualifying the power. If this can be done, it is because the power of Congress over commerce between the states and any of the territories is not restricted by the Constitution. This was the position taken by the Attorney General, with a candor and ability that did him great credit.

But that position is rejected, and the contention seems to be that, if an organized and settled province of another sovereignty is acquired by the United States, Congress has the power to keep it, like a disembodied shade, in an intermediate state of ambiguous existence for an indefinite period, and, more than that, that after it has been called from that limbo, commerce with it is absolutely subject to the will of Congress, irrespective of constitutional provisions.

The accuracy of this view is supposed to be sustained by the act of 1856 in relation to the protection of citizens of the United States removing guano from unoccupied islands, but I am unable to see why the discharge by the United States of its undoubted duty to protect its citizens on terra nullius, whether temporarily engaged in catching and curing fish, or working mines, or taking away manure, furnishes support to the proposition that the power of Congress over the territories of the United States is unrestricted.

Great stress is thrown upon the word "incorporation," as if possessed of some occult meaning, but I take it that the act under consideration made Porto Rico, whatever its situation before, an organized territory of the United States. Being such, and the act undertaking to impose duties by virtue of clause 1 of section 8, how is it that the rule which qualifies the power does not apply to its exercise in respect of commerce with that territory? The power can only be exercised as prescribed, and even if the rule of uniformity could be treated as a mere regulation of the granted power -- a suggestion to which I do not assent -- the validity of these duties comes up directly, and it is idle to discuss the distinction between a total want of power and a defective exercise of it.

The concurring opinion recognizes the fact that Congress, in dealing with the people of new territories or possessions, is bound to respect the fundamental guaranties of life, liberty, and property, but assumes that Congress is not bound, in those territories or possessions, to follow the rules of taxation prescribed by the Constitution. And yet the power to tax involves the power to destroy, and the levy of duties touches all our people in all places under the jurisdiction of the government.

The logical result is that Congress may prohibit commerce altogether between the states and territories, and may prescribe one rule of taxation in one territory, and a different rule in another.

That theory assumes that the Constitution created a government empowered to acquire countries throughout the world, to be governed by different rules than those obtaining in the original states and territories, and substitutes for the present system of republican government a system of domination over distant provinces in the exercise of unrestricted power.

In our judgment, so much of the Porto Rican act as authorized the imposition of these duties is invalid, and plaintiffs were entitled to recover.

Some argument was made as to general consequences apprehended to flow from this result, but the language of the Constitution is too plain and unambiguous to permit its meaning to be thus influenced. There is nothing

in the literal construction so obviously absurd, or mischievous, or repugnant to the general spirit of the instrument as to justify those who expound the Constitution

in giving it a construction not warranted by its words.

Briefs have been presented at this bar purporting to be on behalf of certain industries and eloquently setting forth the desirability that our government should possess the power to impose a tariff on the products of newly acquired territories so as to diminish or remove competition. That however, furnishes no basis for judicial judgment, and if the producers of staples in the existing states of this Union believe the Constitution should be amended so as to reach that result, the instrument itself provides how such amendment can be accomplished. The people of all the states are entitled to a voice in the settlement of that subject.

Again, it is objected on behalf of the government that the possession of absolute power is essential to the acquisition of vast and distant territories, and that we should regard the situation as it is today, rather than as it was a century ago.

We must look at the situation as comprehending a possibility -- I do not say a probability, but a possibility -- that the question might be as to the powers of this government in the acquisition of Egypt and the Soudan, or a section of Central Africa, or a spot in the Antarctic Circle, or a section of the Chinese Empire.

But it must be remembered that, as Marshall and Story declared, the Constitution was framed for ages to come, and that the sagacious men who framed it were well aware that a mighty future waited on their work. The rising sun to which Franklin referred at the close of the convention, they well knew, was that star of empire whose course Berkeley had sung sixty years before.

They may not, indeed, have deliberately considered a triumphal progress of the nation, as such, around the earth, but as Marshall wrote:

It is not enough to say that this particular case was not in the mind of the convention when the article was framed, nor of the American people when it was adopted. It is necessary to go further and to say that, had this particular case been suggested, the language would have been so varied as to exclude it, or it would have been made a special exception.

This cannot be said, and, on the contrary, in order to the successful extension of our institutions, the reasonable presumption is that the limitations on the exertion of arbitrary power would have been made more rigorous.

After all, these arguments are merely political, and "political reasons have not the requisite certainty to afford rules of judicial interpretation."

Congress has power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution all the powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof. If the end be legitimate and within the scope of the Constitution, then, to accomplish it, Congress may use

all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

The grave duty of determining whether an act of Congress does or does not comply with these requirements is only to be discharged by apply in the well settled rules which govern the interpretation of fundamental law, unaffected by the theoretical opinions of individuals.

Tested by those rules our conviction is that the imposition of these duties cannot be sustained.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901)

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901)

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Fuller, "Fuller, J., Dissenting," Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901) in 182 U.S. 244 182 U.S. 348–182 U.S. 363. Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023,

MLA: Fuller. "Fuller, J., Dissenting." Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901), in 182 U.S. 244, pp. 182 U.S. 348–182 U.S. 363. Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Fuller, 'Fuller, J., Dissenting' in Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901). cited in 1901, 182 U.S. 244, pp.182 U.S. 348–182 U.S. 363. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from