132 U.S. 1 (1889), Metropolitan R. Co. v. District of Columbia

Citation:132 U.S. 1, 10 S.Ct. 19, 33 L.Ed. 231
Case Date:October 21, 1889
Court:United States Supreme Court

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132 U.S. 1 (1889)

10 S.Ct. 19, 33 L.Ed. 231




United States Supreme Court.

October 21, 1889


[10 S.Ct. 20] Nathaniel Wilson and Walter D. Davidge, for plaintiff in error.

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A. G. Riddle and H. E. Davis, for defendant in error.



This was an action brought by the District of Columbia in November, 1880, to recover from the Metropolitan Railroad Company the sum of $161,622.52. The alleged cause of action was work done and materials furnished by the plaintiff in paving certain streets and avenues in the city of Washington at various times in the years 1871, 1872, 1873, 1874, and 1875, upon and in consequence of the neglect of the defendant to do said work and furnish said materials in accordance with its duty, as prescribed by its charter. The defendant was chartered by an act of congress dated July 1, 1864, and amended March 3, 1865. By these acts it was authorized to construct and operate lines or routes of doubletrack railways in designated streets and avenues in Washington and Georgetown. The first section of the charter contains the following proviso: 'Provided, that the use and maintenance of the said road shall be subject to the municipal regulations of the city of Washington within its corporate limits.' Of course, this provision reserves police control over the road and its operations on the part of the authorities of the city. The fourth section of the charter declares 'that the said corporation hereby created shall be bound to keep said tracks, and for the space of two feet beyond the outer rail thereof, and also the space between the tracks, at all times well paved and in good order, without expense to the United States or to the city of Washington.' The fifth section declares 'that nothing in this act shall prevent the government at any time, at their option, from altering the grade or other wise improving all avenues and streets occupied by said roads, or the city of Washington from so altering or improving such streets and avenues, and the sewerage thereof, as may be under their respective authority and control; and in such event it shall be the duty of said

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company to change their said railroad so as to conform to such grade and pavement.' It is on these provisions that the claim of the city is based. The amended declaration sets out in great detail the grading and paving which were done in various streets and a venues along and adjoining the tracks of the defendant, and which, it is averred, should have been done by the defendant under the provisions of its charter, but which the defendant neglected and refused to do. The defendant filed 12 several pleas to the action, the eleventh and twelfth being pleas of the statute of limitations. Issue was taken upon all the pleas except these two, and they were demurred to. The court sustained the demurrer, and the cause was tried on the other issues, and a verdict found for the plaintiff. The case is brought here by writ of error, which brings up for consideration a bill of exceptions taken at the trial, and the ruling upon the demurrer to the pleas of the statute of limitations. It is conceded that if the court below erred in sustaining that demurrer, the judgment must be reversed. That question will therefore be first considered.

It is contended by the plaintiff that it (the District of Columbia) is not amenable to the statute of limitations, for three reasons--First, because of its dignity as partaking of the sovereign power of government; secondly, because it is not embraced in the terms of the statute of limitations in force in the District; and, thirdly, because if the general words of the statute are sufficiently broad to include the District, still municipal corporations, unless specially mentioned, are not subject to the statute.

1. The first question, therefore, will be whether the District of Columbia is or is not a municipal body merely, or whether it has such a sovereign character, or is so identified with or representative of the sovereighty of the United States as to be entitled to the prerogatives and exemptions of sovereignity. In order to a better understanding of the subject under consideration it will be proper to take a brief survey of the government of the District and the changes it has undergone since its first organization.

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Prior to 1871 the local government of the District of Columbia, on the east side of the Potomac, had been divided between the corporations of Washington and Georgetown and the levy court of the county of Washington. Georgetown had been incorporated by the legislature of Maryland as early as 1789, (Davis, Laws D. C. 478,) as Alexandria had been, by the legislature of Virginia, as early as 1748 and 1779, (Id. 533, 541;) and those towns or cities were clearly nothing more than ordinary municipal corporations, with the usual powers of such corporations. When the government of the United States took possession of the District in December, 1800, it was divided by congress into two counties, that of Alexandria on the west side of the Potomac, and that of Washington on the east side; and the laws of Virginia were continued over the former, and the laws of Maryland over the latter, and a court called the 'Circuit Court of the District of Columbia,' was established, with general jurisdiction, civil and criminal, to hold sessions alternately in each county; but the corporate rights of the cities of Alexandria and Georgetown, and of all other corporate bodies, were expressly left unimpaired, except as related to judicial powers. See Act Feb. 27, 1801, (2 St. 103.) A supplementary act, passed a few days later, gave to the circuit court [10 S.Ct. 21] certain administrative powers, the same as those vested in the county and levy courts of Virginia and Maryland...

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