By an act of the legislature of the State of Maine approved March 19, 1903, P.L. 1903, c. 122; § 87, c. 4, Revised Statutes of Maine, 1903, it was provided:
"Any city or town may establish and maintain, within its limits, a permanent wood, coal and fuel yard, for the purpose of selling, at cost, wood, coal and fuel to its inhabitants. The term `at cost,' as used herein, shall be construed as meaning without financial profit."
The City of Portland, Maine, voted to establish and maintain within its limits a permanent coal and fuel yard for the purposes of selling at cost wood, coal and fuel to its inhabitants and that the money necessary for such purposes be raised by taxation, and that the term "at cost" as used in said vote should be construed as meaning without financial profit. On February 3, 1913, the common council of the city at a legal meeting passed the vote, and on the same date it was passed by the board of aldermen of the city, and on February 4, 1913, the mayor of the city approved it, whereupon it became the vote of the City of Portland. The city voted to appropriate the sum of one thousand dollars to be devoted to carrying out the purposes of the vote, and the appropriation was passed by the common council, the board of aldermen, and approved by the mayor of the city.
This suit was brought by citizens and taxpayers of Portland in the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine in equity to enjoin the establishment of the yard. The Supreme Judicial Court sustained a demurrer to the bill, and dismissed it. 113 Maine, 123. A writ of error brings the case here because of alleged violation of rights secured
The decision of the case turns upon the answer to the question whether the taxation is for a public purpose. It is well settled that moneys for other than public purposes cannot be raised by taxation, and that exertion of the taxing power for merely private purposes is beyond the authority of the State. Citizens' Saving & Loan Association v. Topeka, 20 Wall. 655.
The act in question has the sanction of the legislative branch of the state government, the body primarily invested with authority to determine what laws are required in the public interest. That the purpose is a public one has been determined upon full consideration by the Supreme Judicial Court of the State upon the authority of a previous decision of that court. Laughlin v. City of Portland, 111 Maine, 486.
The attitude of this court towards state legislation purporting to be passed in the public interest, and so declared to be by the decision of the court of last resort of the State passing the act, has often been declared. While the ultimate authority to determine the validity of legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment is rested in this court, local conditions are of such varying character that what is or is not a public use in a particular State is manifestly a matter respecting which local authority, legislative and judicial, has peculiar facilities for securing accurate information. In that view the judgment of the highest court of the State upon what should be deemed a public use in a particular State is entitled to the highest respect. Hairston v. Danville & Western Ry. Co., 208 U.S. 598, 607. In Union Lime Co.
In the case of Laughlin v. City of Portland, 111 Maine, supra, the matter was fully considered by the Supreme Judicial Court of that State. After reviewing the cases which established the general authority of municipalities in the interest of the public health, convenience, and welfare to make provisions for supplying the inhabitants of such communities with water, light and heat by means adequate for that purpose, the court came to consider the distinction sought to be made between the cases which sustain the authority of the State to authorize municipal action for the purposes stated, and the one under consideration, because of the fact that in the instances in which municipal authority had been sustained the use of the public streets and highways for mains, poles and wires in the distribution of water, light and heat had been required under public authority, whereas in supplying fuel to consumers, under the terms of the law in question, no such permission was essential, the court said (111 Maine, 486, 496):
"Let us look at the question from a practical and concrete standpoint. Can it make any real and vital difference and convert a public into a private use if instead of burning the fuel at the power station to produce the electricity, or at the central heating plant to produce the heat and then conducting it in the one case by wires and in the other by pipes to the user's home, the coal
Answering the objection that sustaining the act in question opens the door to the exercise of municipal authority to conduct other lines of business and commercial activity to the destruction of private business, the court said (111 Maine, 500):
"But it is urged, why, if a city can establish a municipal fuel yard, can it not enter upon any kind of commercial business, and carry on a grocery store, or a meat market or a bakery. The answer has already been indicated. Such kinds of business do not measure up to either of the accepted tests. When we speak of fuel, we are dealing not with ordinary articles of merchandise for which there may be many substitutes, but with an indispensible necessity of life, and more than this, the commodities mentioned are admittedly under present economic conditions regulated by competition in the ordinary channels of private
Bearing in mind that it is not the function of this court under the authority of the Fourteenth Amendment to supervise the legislation of the States in the exercise of the police power beyond protecting against exertions of such authority in the enactment and enforcement of laws of an arbitrary character, having no reasonable relation to the execution of lawful purposes, we are unable to say that the statute now under consideration violates rights of the taxpayer by taking his property for uses which are private.
The authority to furnish light and water by means of municipally owned plants has long been sanctioned as the accomplishment of a public purpose justifying taxation with a view to making provision for their establishment and operation. The right of a municipality to promote the health, comfort and convenience of its inhabitants by the establishment of a plant for the distribution of natural gas for heating purposes was sustained, and we think properly so, in State of Ohio v. Toledo, 48 Ohio St. 112.