No. 762.

134 U.S. 418 (1890)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided March 24, 1890.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. John W. Cary for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Moses E. Clapp and Mr. H.W. Childs, for defendant in error.

Mr. W.C. Goudy closed for appellant.

MR. JUSTICE BLATCHFORD, after stating the case as above reported, delivered the opinion of the court.

The opinion of the Supreme Court of Minnesota is reported in 38 Minnesota, 281. In it the court in the first place construed the statute on the question as to whether the court itself had jurisdiction to entertain the proceeding, and held that it had. Of course, we cannot review this decision.

It next proceeded to consider the question as to the nature and extent of the powers granted to the commission by the statute in the matter of fixing the rates of charges. On that subject it said: "It seems to us that, if language means anything, it is perfectly evident that the expressed intention of the legislature is that the rates recommended and published by the commission (assuming that they have proceeded in the manner pointed out by the act) should be not simply advisory, nor merely prima facie equal and reasonable, but final and conclusive as to what are lawful or equal and reasonable charges; that, in proceedings to compel compliance with the rates thus published, the law neither contemplates nor allows any issue to be made or inquiry had as to their equality and reasonableness in fact. Under the provisions of the act, the rates thus published are the only ones that are lawful, and therefore, in contemplation of law, the only ones that are equal and reasonable; and, hence, in proceedings like the present, there is, as said before, no fact to traverse, except the violation of the law in refusing compliance with the recommendations of the commission. Indeed, the language of the act is so plain on that point that argument can add nothing to its force."

It then proceeded to examine the question of the validity of the act under the constitution of Minnesota, as to whether the legislature was authorized to confer upon the commission the powers given to the latter by the statute. It held that, as the legislature had the power itself to regulate charges by railroads, it could delegate to a commission the power of fixing such charges, and could make the judgment or determination of the commission as to what were reasonable charges final and conclusive.

The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company is a corporation organized under the laws of Wisconsin. The line of railroad owned and operated by it in the present case extends from Calmar, in Iowa, to LeRoy, in Minnesota, and from Leroy, through Owatonna and Faribault, to St. Paul and Minneapolis, the line from Calmar to St. Paul and Minneapolis being known as the "Iowa and Minnesota Division," and being wholly in Minnesota from the point where it crosses the state line between Iowa and Minnesota. It was constructed under a charter granted by the Territory of Minnesota to the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company, by an act approved March 1, 1856, Laws of 1856, c. 166, p. 325, to construct a railroad from the Iowa line, at or near the crossing of said line by the Cedar River, through the valley of Strait River to Minneapolis. Section 9 of that act provided that the directors of the corporation should have power to make all needful rules, regulations and by-laws touching "the rates of toll and the manner of collecting the same;" and section 13, that the company should have power to unite its railroad with any other railroad which was then, or thereafter might be, constructed in the Territory of Minnesota, or adjoining States or Territories, and should have power to consolidate its stock with any other company or companies.

By an act passed March 3, 1857, c. 99, (11 Stat. 195,) the Congress of the United States made a grant of land to the Territory of Minnesota to aid in constructing certain railroads. By an act of the legislature of the Territory, approved May 22, 1857, (Laws of 1857, extra session, p. 20,) a portion of such grant was conferred upon the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company. Subsequently, in 1860, the State of Minnesota, by proper proceedings, became the owner of the rights, franchises and property of that company. By an act approved March 10, 1862, c. 17, (Special Laws of 1862, p. 226,) the State incorporated the Minneapolis, Faribault and Cedar Valley Railroad Company, and conveyed to it all the franchises and property of the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company which the State had so acquired; and by an act approved February 1, 1864, (Special Laws of 1864, p. 164,) the name of the Minneapolis, Faribault and Cedar Valley Railroad Company was changed to that of the Minnesota Central Railway Company. That company constructed the road from Minneapolis and St. Paul to LeRoy, in Minnesota; and the road from LeRoy to Calmar, in Iowa, and thence to McGregor, in the latter State, was consolidated with it. In August, 1867, the entire road from McGregor, by way of Calmar, LeRoy, Austin, Owatonna and Faribault, to St. Paul and Minneapolis, was conveyed to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, which succeeded to all the franchises so granted to the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company.

It is contended for the railway company that the State of Minnesota is bound by the contract made by the Territory in the charter granted to the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company; that a contract existed that the company should have the power of regulating its rates of toll; that any legislation by the State infringing upon that right impairs the obligation of the contract; that there was no provision in the charter or in any general statute reserving to the Territory or to the State the right to alter or amend the charter; and that no subsequent legislation of the Territory or of the State could deprive the directors of the company of the power to fix its rates of toll, subject only to the general provision of law that such rates should be reasonable.

But we are of opinion that the general language of the ninth section of the charter of the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company cannot be held to constitute an irrepealable contract with that company that it should have the right for all future time to prescribe its rates of toll, free from all control by the legislature of the State.

It was held by this court in Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Miller, 132 U.S. 75, in accordance with a long course of decisions both in the state courts and in this court, that a railroad corporation takes its charter, containing a kindred provision with that in question, subject to the general law of the State, and to such changes as may be made in such general law, and subject to future constitutional provisions and future general legislation, in the absence of any prior contract with it exempting it from liability to such future general legislation in respect of the subject matter involved; and that exemption from future general legislation, either by a constitutional provision or by an act of the legislature, cannot be admitted to exist unless it is given expressly, or unless it follows by an implication equally clear with express words.

There is nothing in the mere grant of power, by section 9 of the charter, to the directors of the company, to make needful rules and regulations touching the rates of toll and the manner of collecting the same, which can be properly interpreted as authorizing us to hold that the State parted with its general authority itself to regulate, at any time in the future when it might see fit to do so, the rates of toll to be collected by the company.

In Stone v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Co., 116 U.S. 307, 325, the whole subject is fully considered, the authorities are cited, and the conclusion is arrived at, that the right of a State reasonably to limit the amount of charges by a railroad company for the transportation of persons and property within its jurisdiction cannot be granted away by its legislature unless by words of positive grant or words equivalent in law; and that a statute which grants to a railroad company the right "from time to time to fix, regulate and receive the tolls and charges by them to be received for transportation," does not deprive the State of its power, within the limits of its general authority, as controlled by the Constitution of the United States, to act upon the reasonableness of the tolls and charges so fixed and regulated. But, after reaching this conclusion, the court said (p. 331): "From what has thus been said, it is not to be inferred that this power of limitation or regulation is itself without limit. This power to regulate is not a power to destroy, and limitation is not the equivalent of confiscation. Under pretence of regulating fares and freights, the State cannot require a railroad corporation to carry persons or property without reward; neither can it do that which in law amounts to a taking of private property for public use without just compensation, or without due process of law."

There being, therefore, no contract or chartered right in the railroad company which can prevent the legislature from regulating in some form the charges of the company for transportation, the question is whether the form adopted in the present case is valid.

The construction put upon the statute by the Supreme Court of Minnesota must be accepted by this court, for the purposes of the present case, as conclusive and not to be reëxamined here as to its propriety or accuracy. The Supreme Court authoritatively declares that it is the expressed intention of the legislature of Minnesota, by the statute, that the rates recommended and published by the commission, if it proceeds in the manner pointed out by the act, are not simply advisory, nor merely prima facie equal and reasonable, but final and conclusive as to what are equal and reasonable charges; that the law neither contemplates nor allows any issue to be made or inquiry to be had as to their equality or reasonableness in fact; that, under the statute, the rates published by the commission are the only ones that are lawful, and, therefore, in contemplation of law the only ones that are equal and reasonable; and that, in a proceeding for a mandamus under the statute, there is no fact to traverse except the violation of law in not complying with the recommendations of the commission. In other words, although the railroad company is forbidden to establish rates that are not equal and reasonable, there is no power in the courts to stay the hands of the commission, if it chooses to establish rates that are unequal and unreasonable.

This being the construction of the statute by which we are bound in considering the present case, we are of opinion that, so construed, it conflicts with the Constitution of the United States in the particulars complained of by the railroad company. It deprives the company of its right to a judicial investigation, by due process of law, under the forms and with the machinery provided by the wisdom of successive ages for the investigation judicially of the truth of a matter in controversy, and substitutes therefor, as an absolute finality, the action of a railroad commission which, in view of the powers conceded to it by the state court, cannot be regarded as clothed with judicial functions or possessing the machinery of a court of justice.

Under section 8 of the statute, which the Supreme Court of Minnesota says is the only one which relates to the matter of the fixing by the commission of general schedules of rates, and which section, it says, fully and exclusively provides for that subject, and is complete in itself, all that the commission is required to do is, on the filing with it by a railroad company of copies of its schedules of charges, to "find" that any part thereof is in any respect unequal or unreasonable, and then it is authorized and directed to compel the company to change the same and adopt such charge as the commission "shall declare to be equal and reasonable," and, to that end, it is required to inform the company in writing in what respect its charges are unequal and unreasonable. No hearing is provided for, no summons or notice to the company before the commission has found what it is to find and declared what it is to declare, no opportunity provided for the company to introduce witnesses before the commission, in fact, nothing which has the semblance of due process of law; and although, in the present case, it appears that, prior to the decision of the commission, the company appeared before it by its agent, and the commission investigated the rates charged by the company for transporting milk, yet it does not appear what the character of the investigation was or how the result was arrived at.

By the second section of the statute in question, it is provided that all charges made by a common carrier for the transportation of passengers or property shall be equal and reasonable. Under this provision, the carrier has a right to make equal and reasonable charges for such transportation. In the present case, the return alleged that the rate of charge fixed by the commission was not equal or reasonable, and the Supreme Court held that the statute deprived the company of the right to show that judicially. The question of the reasonableness of a rate of charge for transportation by a railroad company, involving as it does the element of reasonableness both as regards the company and as regards the public, is eminently a question for judicial investigation, requiring due process of law for its determination. If the company is deprived of the power of charging reasonable rates for the use of its property, and such deprivation takes place in the absence of an investigation by judicial machinery, it is deprived of the lawful use of its property, and thus, in substance and effect, of the property itself, without due process of law and in violation of the Constitution of the United States; and in so far as it is thus deprived, while other persons are permitted to receive reasonable profits upon their invested capital, the company is deprived of the equal protection of the laws.

It is provided by section 4 of article 10 of the constitution of Minnesota of 1857, that "lands may be taken for public way, for the purpose of granting to any corporation the franchise of way for public use," and that "all corporations, being common carriers, enjoying the right of way in pursuance to the provisions of this section, shall be bound to carry the mineral, agricultural and other productions and manufactures on equal and reasonable terms." It is thus perceived that the provision of section 2 of the statute in question is one enacted in conformity with the constitution of Minnesota.

The issuing of the peremptory writ of mandamus in this case was, therefore, unlawful, because in violation of the Constitution of the United States; and it is necessary that the relief administered in favor of the plaintiff in error should be a reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court awarding that writ, and an instruction for further proceedings by it not inconsistent with the opinion of this court.

In view of the opinion delivered by that court, it may be impossible for any further proceedings to be taken other than to dismiss the proceeding for a mandamus, if the court should adhere to its opinion that, under the statute, it cannot investigate judicially the reasonableness of the rates fixed by the commission. Still, the question will be open for review; and

The judgment of this court is, that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Minnesota, entered May 4, 1888, awarding a peremptory writ of mandamus in this case, be reversed, and the case be remanded to that court, with an instruction for further proceedings not inconsistent with the opinion of this court.

MR. JUSTICE MILLER concurring.

I concur with some hesitation in the judgment of the court, but wish to make a few suggestions of the principles which I think should govern this class of questions in the courts. Not desiring to make a dissent, nor a prolonged argument in favor of any views I may have, I will state them in the form of propositions.

1. In regard to the business of common carriers limited to points within a single State, that State has the legislative power to establish the rates of compensation for such carriage.

2. The power which the legislature has to do this can be exercised through a commission which it may authorize to act in the matter, such as the one appointed by the legislature of Minnesota by the act now under consideration.

3. Neither the legislature nor such commission acting under the authority of the legislature, can establish arbitrarily and without regard to justice and right a tariff of rates for such transportation, which is so unreasonable as to practically destroy the value of property of persons engaged in the carrying business on the one hand, nor so exorbitant and extravagant as to be in utter disregard of the rights of the public for the use of such transportation on the other.

4. In either of these classes of cases there is an ultimate remedy by the parties aggrieved, in the courts, for relief against such oppressive legislation, and especially in the courts of the United States, where the tariff of rates established either by the legislature or by the commission is such as to deprive a party of his property without due process of law.

5. But until the judiciary has been appealed to to declare the regulations made, whether by the legislature or by the commission, voidable for the reasons mentioned, the tariff of rates so fixed is the law of the land, and must be submitted to both by the carrier and the parties with whom he deals.

6. That the proper, if not the only, mode of judicial relief against the tariff of rates established by the legislature or by its commission, is by a bill in chancery asserting its unreasonable character and its conflict with the Constitution of the United States, and asking a decree of court forbidding the corporation from exacting such fare as excessive, or establishing its right to collect the rates as being within the limits of a just compensation for the service rendered.

7. That until this is done it is not competent for each individual having dealings with the carrying corporation, or for the corporation with regard to each individual who demands its services, to raise a contest in the courts over the questions which ought to be settled in this general and conclusive method.

8. But in the present case, where an application is made to the Supreme Court of the State to compel the common carriers, namely, the railroad companies, to perform the services which their duty requires them to do for the general public, which is equivalent to establishing by judicial proceeding the reasonableness of the charges fixed by the commission, I think the court has the same right and duty to inquire into the reasonableness of the tariff of rates established by the commission before granting such relief, that it would have if called upon so to do by a bill in chancery.

9. I do not agree that it was necessary to the validity of the action of the commission that previous notice should have been given to all common carriers interested in the rates to be established, nor to any particular one of them, any more than it would have been necessary, which I think it is not, for the legislature to have given such notice if it had established such rates by legislative enactment.

10. But when the question becomes a judicial one, and the validity and justice of these rates are to be established or rejected by the judgment of a court, it is necessary that the railroad corporations interested in the fare to be considered should have notice and have a right to be heard on the question relating to such fare, which I have pointed out as judicial questions. For the refusal of the Supreme Court of Minnesota to receive evidence on this subject, I think the case ought to be reversed on the ground that this is a denial of due process of law in a proceeding which takes the property of the company, and if this be a just construction of the statute of Minnesota it is for that reason void.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY (with whom concurred MR. JUSTICE GRAY and MR. JUSTICE LAMAR) dissenting.

I cannot agree to the decision of the court in this case. It practically overrules Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, and the several railroad cases that were decided at the same time. The governing principle of those cases was that the regulation and settlement of the fares of railroads and other public accommodations is a legislative prerogative and not a judicial one. This is a principle which I regard as of great importance. When a railroad company is chartered, it is for the purpose of performing a duty which belongs to the State itself. It is chartered as an agent of the State for furnishing public accommodation. The State might build its railroads if it saw fit. It is its duty and its prerogative to provide means of intercommunication between one part of its territory and another. And this duty is devolved upon the legislative department. If the legislature commissions private parties, whether corporations or individuals, to perform this duty, it is its prerogative to fix the fares and freights which they may charge for their services. When merely a road or a canal is to be constructed, it is for the legislature to fix the tolls to be paid by those who use it; when a company is chartered not only to build a road, but to carry on public transportation upon it, it is for the legislature to fix the charges for such transportation.

But it is said that all charges should be reasonable, and that none but reasonable charges can be exacted; and it is urged that what is a reasonable charge is a judicial question. On the contrary, it is preëminently a legislative one, involving considerations of policy as well as of remuneration; and is usually determined by the legislature, by fixing a maximum of charges in the charter of the company, or afterwards, if its hands are not tied by contract. If this maximum is not exceeded, the courts cannot interfere. When the rates are not thus determined, they are left to the discretion of the company, subject to the express or implied condition that they shall be reasonable; express, when so declared by statute; implied, by the common law, when the statute is silent; and the common law has effect by virtue of the legislative will.

Thus, the legislature either fixes the charges at rates which it deems reasonable; or merely declares that they shall be reasonable; and it is only in the latter case, where what is reasonable is left open, that the courts have jurisdiction of the subject. I repeat: When the legislature declares that the charges shall be reasonable, or, which is the same thing, allows the common law rule to that effect to prevail, and leaves the matter there; then resort may be had to the courts to inquire judicially whether the charges are reasonable. Then, and not till then, is it a judicial question. But the legislature has the right, and it is its prerogative, if it chooses to exercise it, to declare what is reasonable.

This is just where I differ from the majority of the court. They say in effect, if not in terms, that the final tribunal of arbitrament is the judiciary; I say it is the legislature. I hold that it is a legislative question, not a judicial one, unless the legislature or the law, (which is the same thing,) has made it judicial, by prescribing the rule that the charges shall be reasonable, and leaving it there.

It is always a delicate thing for the courts to make an issue with the legislative department of the government, and they should never do so if it is possible to avoid it. By the decision now made we declare, in effect, that the judiciary, and not the legislature, is the final arbiter in the regulation of fares and freights of railroads and the charges of other public accommodations. It is an assumption of authority on the part of the judiciary which, it seems to me, with all due deference to the judgment of my brethren, it has no right to make. The assertion of jurisdiction by this court makes it the duty of every court of general jurisdiction, state or federal, to entertain complaints against the decisions of the boards of commissioners appointed by the States to regulate their railroads; for all courts are bound by the Constitution of the United States, the same as we are. Our jurisdiction is merely appellate.

The incongruity of this position will appear more distinctly by a reference to the nature of the cases under consideration. The question presented before the commission in each case was one relating simply to the reasonableness of the rates charged by the companies, — a question of more or less, In the one case the company charged three cents per gallon for carrying milk between certain points. The commission deemed this to be unreasonable, and reduced the charge to 2½ cents. In the other case the company charged $1.25 per car for handling and switching empty cars over its lines within the city of Minneapolis, and $1.50 for loaded cars; and the commission decided that $1.00 per car was a sufficient charge in all cases. The companies complain that the charges as fixed by the commission are unreasonably low, and that they are deprived of their property without due process of law; that they are entitled to a trial by a court and jury, and are not barred by the decisions of a legislative commission. The state court held that the legislative had the right to establish such a commission, and that its determinations are binding and final, and that the courts cannot review them. This court now reverses that decision, and holds the contrary. In my judgment the state court was right, and the establishment of the commission, and its proceedings, were no violation of the constitutional prohibition against depriving persons of their property without due process of law.

I think it is perfectly clear, and well settled by the decisions of this court, that the legislature might have fixed the rates in question. If it had done so, it would have done it through the aid of committees appointed to investigate the subject, to acquire information, to cite parties, to get all the facts before them, and finally to decide and report. No one could have said that this was not due process of law. And if the legislature itself could do this, acting by its committees, and proceeding according to the usual forms adopted by such bodies, I can see no good reason why it might not delegate the duty to a board of commissioners, charged, as the board in this case was, to regulate and fix the charges, so as to be equal and reasonable. Such a board would have at its command all the means of getting at the truth and ascertaining the reasonableness of fares and freights, which a legislative committee has. It might, or it might not, swear witnesses and examine parties. Its duties being of an administrative character, it would have the widest scope for examination and inquiry. All means of knowledge and information would be at its command, — just as they would be at the command of the legislature which created it. Such a body, though not a court, is a proper tribunal for the duties imposed upon it.

In the case of Davidson v. City of New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97, we decided that the appointment of a board of assessors for assessing damages was not only due process of law, but the proper method for making assessments to distribute the burden of a public work amongst those who are benefited by it. No one questions the constitutionality or propriety of boards for assessing property for taxation, or for the improvement of streets, sewers and the like, or of commissions to establish county seats, and for doing many other things appertaining to the administrative management of public affairs. Due process of law does not always require a court. It merely requires such tribunals and proceedings as are proper to the subject in hand. In the Railroad Commission Cases, 116 U.S. 307, we held that a board of commissioners is a proper tribunal for determining the proper rates of fare and freight on the railroads of a state. It seems to me, therefore, that the law of Minnesota did not prescribe anything that was not in accordance with due process of law in creating such a board, and investing it with the powers in question.

It is complained that the decisions of the board are final and without appeal. So are the decisions of the courts in matters within their jurisdiction. There must be a final tribunal somewhere for deciding every question in the world. Injustice may take place in all tribunals. All human institutions are imperfect — courts as well as commissions and legislatures. Whatever tribunal has jurisdiction, its decisions are final and conclusive unless an appeal is given therefrom. The important question always is, what is the lawful tribunal for the particular case? In my judgment, in the present case, the proper tribunal was the legislature, or the board of commissioners which it created for the purpose.

If not in terms, yet in effect, the present cases are treated as if the constitutional prohibition was, that no state shall take private property for public use without just compensation, — and as if it was our duty to judge of the compensation. But there is no such clause in the constitution of the United States. The Fifth Amendment is prohibitory upon the federal government only, and not upon the state governments. In this matter, — just compensation for property taken for public use, — the states make their own regulations, by constitution, or otherwise. They are only required by the federal Constitution to provide "due process of law." It was alleged in Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97, that the property assessed was not benefited by the improvement; but we held that that was a matter with which we would not interfere; the question was, whether there was due process of law. p. 106. If a state court renders an unjust judgment, we cannot remedy it.

I do not mean to say that the legislature, or its constituted board of commissioners, or other legislative agency, may not so act as to deprive parties of their property without due process of law. The Constitution contemplates the possibility of such an invasion of rights. But, acting within their jurisdiction, (as in these cases they have done,) the invasion should be clear and unmistakable to bring the case within that category. Nothing of the kind exists in the cases before us. The legislature, in establishing the commission, did not exceed its power; and the commission, in acting upon the cases, did not exceed its jurisdiction, and was not chargeable with fraudulent behavior. There was merely a difference of judgment as to amount, between the commission and the companies, without any indication of intent on the part of the former to do injustice. The board may have erred; but if they did, as the matter was within their rightful jurisdiction, their decision was final and conclusive unless their proceedings could be impeached for fraud. Deprivation of property by mere arbitrary power on the part of the legislature, or fraud on the part of the commission, are the only grounds on which judicial relief may be sought against their action. There was, in truth, no deprivation of property in these cases at all. There was merely a regulation as to the enjoyment of property, made by a strictly competent authority, in a matter entirely within its jurisdiction.

It may be that our legislatures are invested with too much power, open, as they are, to influences so dangerous to the interests of individuals, corporations and society. But such is the Constitution of our republican form of government; and we are bound to abide by it until it can be corrected in a legitimate way. If our legislatures become too arbitrary in the exercise of their powers, the people always have a remedy in their hands; they may at any time restrain them by constitutional limitations. But so long as they remain invested with the powers that ordinarily belong to the legislative branch of government, they are entitled to exercise those powers, amongst which, in my judgment, is that of the regulation of railroads and other public means of intercommunication, and the burdens and charges which those who own them are authorized to impose upon the public.

I am authorized to say that Mr. Justice Gray and Mr. Justice Lamar agree with me in this dissenting opinion.


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