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"Government" Of A State v. The State Itself

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  • Legalbear
    In the discussion of such questions, the distinction between the government of a state and the state itself is important, and should be observed. In common
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2011

      In the discussion of such questions, the distinction between the government of a state and the state itself is important, and should be observed. In common speech and common apprehension they are usually regarded as identical; and as ordinarily the acts of the government are the acts of the State, because within the limits of its delegation of power, the government of the State is generally confounded with the State itself, and often the former is meant when the latter is mentioned. The State itself is an ideal person, intangible, invisible, immutable. The government is an agent, and, within the sphere of the agency, a perfect representative; but outside of that, it is a lawless usurpation. The Constitution of the State is the limit of the authority of its government, and both government and State are subject to the supremacy of the Constitution of the United States, and of the laws made in pursuance thereof. So that, while it is true in respect to the government of a State, as was said in Langford v. United States, 101 U.S. 341, that the maxim, that the king can do no wrong, has no place in our system of government; yet, it is also true, in respect to the State itself, that whatever wrong is attempted in its name is imputable to its government, and not to the State, for, as it can speak and act only by law, whatever it does say and do must be lawful. That which, therefore, is unlawful because made so by the supreme law, the Constitution of the United States, is not the word or deed of the State, but is the mere wrong and trespass of those individual persons who falsely speak and act in its name. It was upon the ground of this important distinction that this court proceeded in the case of Texas v. White, 7 Wall. 700, when it adjudged that the acts of secession, which constituted the civil war of 1861, were the unlawful acts of usurping State governments, and not the acts of the States themselves, inasmuch as "the Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States;" and that, consequently, the war itself was not a war between the States, nor a war of the United States against States, but a war of the United States against 291#####291 unlawful and usurping governments, representing not the States, but a rebellion against the United States. This is, in substance, what was said by Chief Justice Chase, delivering the opinion of the court in Thorington v. Smith, 8 Wall. 1, 9, when he declared, speaking of the Confederate government, that "it was regarded as simply the military representative of the insurrection against the authority of the United States." The same distinction was declared and enforced in Williams v. Bruffy, 96 U.S. 176, 192, and in Horn v. Lockhart, 17 Wall. 570, both of which were referred to and approved in Keith v. Clark, 97 U.S. 454, 465.


      This distinction is essential to the idea of constitutional government. To deny it or blot it out obliterates the line of demarcation that separates constitutional government from absolutism, free self-government based on the sovereignty of the people from that despotism, whether of the one or the many, which enables the agent of the State to declare and decree that he is the State; to say "L'√Čtat c'est moi." [I am the state!] Of what avail are written constitutions whose bills of right for the security of individual liberty have been written, too often, with the blood of martyrs shed upon the battle-field and the scaffold, if their limitations and restraints upon power may be overpassed with impunity by the very agencies created and appointed to guard, defend, and enforce them; and that, too, with the sacred authority of law, not only compelling obedience, but entitled to respect? And how else can these principles of individual liberty and right be maintained, if, when violated, the judicial tribunals are forbidden to visit penalties upon individual offenders, who are the instruments of wrong, whenever they interpose the shield of the State? The doctrine is not to be tolerated. The whole frame and scheme of the political institutions of this country, State and Federal, protest against it. Their continued existence is not compatible with it. It is the doctrine of absolutism [the principle or the exercise of complete and unrestricted power in government.], pure, simple, and naked; and of communism, which is its twin; the double progeny of the same evil birth.


      It was said by Chief Justice Chase, speaking for the whole court in Lane County v. Oregon, 7 Wall. 71, 76, that the people, 292#####292 through the Constitution of the United States, "established a more perfect union by substituting a national government, acting, with ample power, directly upon the citizens, instead of the confederate government, which acted with powers, greatly restricted, only upon the States." In no other way can the supremacy of that Constitution be maintained. It creates a government in fact, as well as in name, because its Constitution is the supreme law of the land, "anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding;" and its authority is enforced by its power to regulate and govern the conduct of individuals, even where its prohibitions are laid only upon the States themselves. The mandate of the State affords no justification for the invasion of rights secured by the Constitution of the United States; otherwise, that Constitution would not be the supreme law of the land. When, therefore, an individual defendant pleads a statute of a State, which is in violation of the Constitution of the United States, as his authority for taking or holding property, to which the citizen asserts title, and for the protection or possession of which he appeals to the courts, to say that the judicial enforcement of the supreme law of the land, as between the individual parties, is to coerce the State, ignores the fundamental principles on which the Constitution rests, as contrasted with the Articles of Confederation, which it displaced; and, practically, makes the statutes of the States the supreme law of the land within their respective limits.


      When, therefore, by the act of March 30, 1871, the contract was made, by which it was agreed that the coupons issued under that act should thereafter be receivable in payment of taxes, it was the contract of the State of Virginia, because, though made by the agency of the government, for the time being, of the State, that government was acting within the scope of its authority, and spoke with its voice as its true representative; and inasmuch as, by the Constitution of the United States, which is also the supreme law of Virginia, that contract, when made, became thereby unchangeable and irrepealable by the State, the subsequent act of January 26, 1882, and all other like acts, which deny the obligation of that contract 293#####293 and forbid its performance, are not the acts of the State of Virginia. The true and real Commonwealth which contracted the obligation is incapable in law of doing anything in derogation of it. Whatever having that effect, if operative, has been attempted or done, is the work of its government acting without authority, in violation of its fundamental law, and must be looked upon, in all courts of justice, as if it were not and never had been. The argument, therefore, which seeks to defeat the present action, for the reason that it is a suit against the State of Virginia, because the nominal defendant is merely its officer and agent, acting in its behalf, in its name, and for its interest, and amenable only to it, falls to the ground, because its chief postulate fails. The State of Virginia has done none of these things with which this defence charges her. The defendant in error is not her [her being the state] officer, her agent, or her representative, in the matter complained of, for he has acted not only without her authority, but contrary to her express commands. The plaintiff in error, in fact and in law, is representing her, as he seeks to establish her law, and vindicates her integrity as he maintains his own right.


      Tried by every test which has been judicially suggested for the determination of the question, this cannot be considered to be a suit against the State. The State is not named as a party in the record; the action is not directly upon the contract; it is not for the purpose of controlling the discretion of executive officers, or administering funds actually in the public treasury, as was held to be the case in Louisiana v. Jumel, 107 U.S. 711; it is not an attempt to compel officers of the State to do the acts which constitute a performance of its contract by the State, as suggested by a minority of the court in Antoni v. Greenhow, 107 U.S. 769, 783; nor is it a case where the State is a necessary party, that the defendant may be protected from liability to it, after having answered to the present plaintiff. For, on this supposition, if the accounting officers of the State government refuse to credit the tax collector with coupons received by him in payment of taxes, or seek to hold him responsible for a failure to execute the void statute, which required him to refuse coupons in payment of taxes, in any action or 294#####294 prosecution brought against him in the name of the State, the grounds of the judgment rendered in favor of the present plaintiff will constitute his perfect defence. And as that defence, made in any cause, though brought in a State court, would present a question arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States, it would be within the jurisdiction of this court to give it effect, upon a writ of error, without regard to the amount or value in dispute. Poindexter v. Greenhow, 114 U.S. 270, 290-94 (1885).



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