This case depends upon the construction to be given to section 13 of the act of July 12, 1876, which reads as follows: "Section 13. That railroad companies whose railroad was constructed in whole or in part by a land grant made by Congress on the condition that the mails should be transported over their road at such price as Congress should by law direct, shall receive only eighty per centum of the compensation authorized by this act." As it is admitted that the construction of so much of this road as lay within the States of Alabama and Mississippi, amounting to 263.85 miles, was aided by the proceeds of lands granted by the acts of Congress of June 3, 1856, 11 Stat. 17, c. 41, and August 11, 1856, 11 Stat. 30, c. 83, and the residue of such road lying within the States of Tennessee and Georgia, amounting to 31.6 miles, was constructed without such aid, the question is presented whether the government is entitled to the transportation of the mail over the whole of such road at eighty per cent of the compensation provided for roads which have received no aid from Congress, or whether such percentage applies only to so much of the road as lies within the States of Alabama and Mississippi.
The difficulty arises from the fact that, by section 13, above
But these words are still susceptible of a third construction, viz., that any railroad the entire line of which or only certain linear portions of which had been constructed by a Congressional land grant, should receive the reduced rate properly proportioned to the part which had received such aid; and that, as to the unaided portion, it should receive the full compensation
We think the contemporaneous construction thus given by the executive department of the government, and continued for nine years through six different administrations of that department — a construction which, though inconsistent with the literalism of the act, certainly consorts with the equities of the case — should be considered as decisive in this suit. It is a settled doctrine of this court that, in case of ambiguity, the judicial department will lean in favor of a construction given to a statute by the department charged with the execution of such statute, and, if such construction be acted upon for a number of years, will look with disfavor upon any sudden change, whereby parties who have contracted with the government upon the faith of such construction may be prejudiced. It is especially objectionable that a construction of a statute favorable to the individual citizen should be changed in such manner as to become retroactive, and to require from him the repayment of moneys to which he had supposed himself entitled, and upon the expectation of which he had made his contracts with the government. These principles were announced as early as 1827 in Edwards' Lessee v. Darby, 12 Wheat. 206, 210, and have been steadily adhered to in subsequent decisions. United States v. State Bank of North Carolina, 6 Pet. 29, 39; United States v. Macdaniel, 7 Pet. 1; Brown v. United States, 113 U.S. 568; United States v. Moore, 95 U.S. 760, 763.
The construction we have given to this act is also in harmony with that given to the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 in United
There was no error in the judgment of the Court of Claims, and it is, therefore,