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TREGEA v. MODESTO IRRIGATION DISTRICT.

decided: November 16, 1896.

TREGEA
v.
MODESTO IRRIGATION DISTRICT.



ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA.

Author: Brewer

[ 164 U.S. Page 184]

 MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

A motion was made to dismiss this case on the ground of the lack of a Federal question. It appears from the opinion

[ 164 U.S. Page 185]

     of the Supreme Court of the State that the defendant contended before it that the attempt to bind the reconstituted district -- that is, the district diminished by the exclusion of 28,000 acres, and in which his property was situated -- by a vote of the district prior to such exclusion in respect to the issue of bonds, was in violation of section 10, article I of the Constitution of the United States; and that it overruled and denied such contention. So there was considered by the Supreme Court of the State the distinct question of an alleged conflict between the proceedings confirmed by the decree of the lower court and rights claimed under the Constitution of the United States, and the decision was against those rights. Further, the real contention of the defendant was and is that the operation of this statute is to deprive him of property without due process of law. The burden of his case from the first has rested in the alleged conflict between proceedings had under the irrigation statute and the Federal Constitution; so that beyond the express declaration in the opinion of the Supreme Court of the State, we may look to the real matter in dispute, and these unite in forbidding us to say that no Federal question was presented. The motion to dismiss on that ground must be overruled.

But going beyond this matter, we are confronted with the question whether, in advance of the issue of bonds and before any obligation has been assumed by the district, there is a case or controversy with opposing parties, such as can be submitted to and can compel judicial consideration and judgment. This is no mere technical question. For, notwithstanding the adjudication by the courts of the State in favor of the validity of the order made for the issue of four hundred thousand dollars of bonds, and, notwithstanding any inquiry and determination which this court might make in respect to the matters involved, there would still be no contract executed; no obligation resting on the district. All that would be accomplished by our affirmance of the decision of the state court would be an adjudication of the right to make a contract, and, unless the board should see fit to proceed in the exercise of the power thus held to exist, all the time and labor

[ 164 U.S. Page 186]

     of the court would be spent in determining a mere barren right -- a purely moot question.

We are not concerned with any question as to what a State may require of its judges and courts, nor with what measures it may adopt for securing evidence of the regularity of the proceedings of its municipal corporations. It may authorize an auditor or other officer of state to examine the proceedings and make his certificate of regularity conclusive evidence thereof, or it may permit the district to appeal to a court for a like determination, but in either event it is a mere proceeding to secure evidence.

The directors of an irrigation district occupy no position antagonistic to the district. They are the agents and the district is the principal. The interests are identical, and it is practically an ex parte application on behalf of the district for the determination of a question which may never in fact arise. It may be true, as the Supreme Court say, that it is of advantage to the district to have some prior determination of the validity of the proceedings in order to secure the sale of its bonds on more advantageous terms, but that does not change the real character of this proceeding.

This is not the mere reverse of an injunction suit brought by an inhabitant of the district to restrain a board from issuing bonds, for in such case there is an adversary proceeding. Underlying it is the claim that the agent is proposing to do for his principal that which he has no right to do, and to bind him by a contract which he has no right to make; and to protect his property from burden or cloud the taxpayer is permitted to invoke judicial determination. If in such suit an injunction be granted, as is prayed for, the decision is not one of a moot question, but is an adjudication which protects the property of the taxpayer.

The power which the directors claim is a mere naked power, and not a power coupled with an interest. It is nothing to them, as agents, whether they issue the bonds or not; they neither make nor lose by an exercise of the alleged power; ...


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