137 US 43 Harding v. Woodcock

137 U.S. 43

11 S.Ct. 6

34 L.Ed. 580

WOODCOCK, Collector of Internal Revenue.

November 3, 1890.

[Statement of Case from pages 43-45 intentionally omitted]

S. Watson and G. N. Tillman, for plaintiff in error.

Solicitor General Taft, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice FIELD, after stating the facts as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

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The plaintiff contended in the court below, and renews the contention here, that, the plea of justification interposed by the defendant for the acts complained of—the seizure and sale of the property—having been stricken out, he is left defenseless in the action. That such would be the effect of the ruling if the declaration was one in form for an ordinary trespass may be conceded. But the rule that a justification to an alleged trespass, to avail, must be pleaded, does not apply here. The striking out of the plea did not remove the fact that the seizure and sale were made under proceedings which protected the officer of the government from personal liability, because in the declaration itself his liability is charged upon a state of facts which shows that he acted in conformity with the law, and could not, therefore, be held responsible for the alleged invasion of the rights of the plaintiff in its enforcement.


When the assessment was certified to the collector, his duty in enforcing it was one which he could not refuse to perform. There was no discretion vested in him to revise or alter it in any respect. His duty was purely ministerial. In Erskine v. Hohnbach, 14 Wall. 613, 616, which, like the present action, was brought against a collector of internal revenue for the seizure and sale of property of the plaintiff upon an assessment for taxes duly made by the assessor of the district, the court held that the assessment certified to him (the collector) was his authority to proceed; and, like an execution to a sheriff, regular on its face, issued by a tribunal having jurisdiction of the subject-matter, constituted his protection. At that time, (1871,) officers, termed 'assessors,' made the assessment for taxes due to the United States on distilled spirits in their several districts, (13 St. c. 173, §§ 8, 20;) but their office was abolished in 1873, and the power to assess for such taxes vested in the commissioner of internal revenue, (17 St. c. 13, §§ 1, 2, pp. 401, 402.) In the case referred to, the liability of a ministerial officer in the enforcement of process was the subject of consideration, and it was there held that, whatever may at one time have been the conflict in the adjudged cases as to the extent of protection afforded to such officers acting in obedience to process or orders issued to them by tribunals or officers invested by law with authority to pass upon and determine particular facts, and render judgment thereon, it was now well settled 'that if the officer or tribunal possesses jurisdiction over the subject-matter upon which judgment is passed, with power to issue an order or process for the enforcement of such judgment, and the order or process issued thereon to the ministerial officer is regular on its face, showing no departure from the law, or defect of jurisdiction over the person or porerty affected, then, and in such cases, the order or process will give full and entire protection to the ministerial officer, in its regular enforcement against any prosecution the party aggrieved may institute against him, although serious errors may have been committed by the officer or tribunal in reaching the conclusion or judgment upon which the order or process is issued.' This doctrine was deemed applicable to collectors of internal revenue in enforcing an assessment for taxes regular on its face, made by the assessors of the district, and duly certified to them. The same doctrine was reasserted in protection of a collector of internal revenue in the subsequent case of Haffin v. Mason, 15 Wall. 671, 675, the court observing that 'a ministerial officer, in a case in which it is his duty to act, cannot upon any principle of law be made a trespasser.'


No question is raised as to the regularity in form of the assessment certified to the collector. It is assumed on both sides that it is not open to objection in that respect. The principal point urged by the plaintiff in error is that the defendant should not have proceeded to enforce the assessment after the action by the United States was commenced on the bond of the distiller to collect the same taxes. But it is plain that the officer had no discretion in the matter. He could not suspend, or in any way delay, the performance of the duty imposed upon him, because the government may have judged it proper to proceed for the same taxes by action, not only against the distiller, but against the sureties on his bond also. The government may have thought that the property which could be reached by the collector would prove inadequate to meet the amount claimed. By instituting the action, it did not waive its right to pursue any other remedies afforded by the law to secure the payment of its claim. Nor could the collector consider whether in the pending action it might not be ultimately determined that the taxes were illegal which he was endeavoring to collect. He had completed his duty more than a year before that decision was rendered. Had the judgment of their illegality been pronounced before the enforcement of the assessment by the collector, and been brought to his notice, a different question might possibly be raised. What remedy the plaintiff may have for the loss of his property, or for the amount of the proceeds obtained on its sale, we are not called upon to determine in this case. There may be, perhaps, a claim against the government. All that we decide is that a liability cannot be fastened upon the collector, a ministerial officer, for the enforcement of an assessment for taxes regular on its face, made by the commissioner of internal revenue. Of such an officer the law exacts unhesitating obedience to its process. Judgment affirmed.