165 U.S. 150 (1891), 188, Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Company v. Ellis

Docket Nº:No. 188
Citation:165 U.S. 150, 17 S.Ct. 255, 41 L.Ed. 666
Party Name:Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Company v. Ellis
Case Date:January 18, 1897
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 150

165 U.S. 150 (1891)

17 S.Ct. 255, 41 L.Ed. 666

Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Company

v.

Ellis

No. 188

United States Supreme Court

January 18, 1897

Submitted November 8, 1896

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT

OF THE STATE OF TEXAS

Syllabus

The act of the Legislature of Texas of April 5, 1889, which provides that

any person in this state having a valid bona fide claim for personal services rendered or labor done, or for damages, or for overcharges on freight, or claims for stock killed or injured by the train of any railway

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company, provided that such claim for stock killed or injured shall be presented to the agent of the company nearest to the point where such stock was killed or injured, against any railway corporation operating a railroad in this state, and the amount of such claim does not exceed $50, may present the same, verified by his affidavit, for payment to such corporation by filing it with any station agent of such corporation in any county where suit may be instituted for the same, and if at the expiration of thirty days after such presentation, such claim has not been paid or satisfied, he may immediately institute suit thereon in the proper court, and if he shall finally establish his claim, and obtain judgment for the full amount thereof, as presented for payment to such corporation in such court, or any court to which the suit may have been appealed, he shall be entitled to recover the amount of such claim and all costs of suit, and in addition thereto all reasonable attorney's fees, provided he has an attorney employed in his case, not to exceed $10, to be assessed and awarded by the court or jury trying the issue,

operates to deprive the railroad companies of property without due process of law and denies to them the equal protection of the law in that it singles them out of all citizens and corporations and requires them to pay in certain cases attorney's fees to the parties successfully suing them, while it gives to them no like or corresponding benefit.

The mere fact of classification is not sufficient to relieve a statute from the reach of the equality clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and in all cases it must appear not merely that a classification has been made, but also that it is based upon some reasonable ground -- something which bears a just and proper relation to the attempted classification, and is not a mere arbitrary selection. Tested by these principles, the statute in controversy cannot be sustained.

On April 5, 1889, the Legislature of the Texas passed this act:

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Texas that after the time when this act shall take effect, any person in this state having a valid bona fide claim for personal services rendered or labor done, or for damages, or for overcharges on freight, or claims for stock killed or injured by the train of any railway company, provided that such claims for stock killed or injured shall be presented to the agent of the company nearest to the point where such stock was killed or injured, against any railway corporation operating a railroad in this state, and the amount of such claim does not exceed $50, may present the same, verified by his affidavit, for payment to such corporation by filing

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it with any station agent of such corporation in any county where the suit may be instituted for the same, and if, at the expiration of thirty days after such presentation, such claim has not been paid or satisfied, he may immediately institute suit thereon in the proper court, and if he shall finally establish his claim and obtain judgment for the full amount thereof, as presented for payment to such corporation in such court, or any court to which the suit may have been appealed, he shall be entitled to recover the amount of such claim and all costs of suit, and in addition thereto all reasonable attorney's fees, provided he has an attorney employed in his case, not to exceed $10, to be assessed and awarded by the court or jury trying the issue.

On October 8, 1890, defendant in error commenced this action before a justice of the peace to recover $50 for the colt killed by the railway company. The complaint alleged presentation and nonpayment, as required by the act, and demanded $10 attorney fee. The company answered, admitting everything except the claim for the attorney's fee. The case passed, after judgment in favor of the plaintiff for the amount claimed and an attorney's fee of $10, through the district court and the court of civil appeals to the supreme court of the state, by which, on May 10, 1894, the judgment against the company was affirmed. 87 Tex. 19. To reverse such judgment, the company sued out this writ of error.

BREWER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The single question in this case is the constitutionality of the act allowing attorney fees. The contention is that it operates to deprive the railroad companies of property without

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due process of law and denies to them the equal protection of the law in that it singles them out of all citizens and corporations and requires them to pay in certain cases attorney fees to the parties successfully suing them, while it gives to them no like or corresponding benefit. Only against railroad companies is such exaction made, and only in certain cases.

We have not been favored with any argument or brief from the defendant in error. Doubtless he believed, and justly, that nothing could be added to the arguments so fully and strongly made in support of the constitutionality of this law in the respective opinions of the two highest courts of the state.

The supreme court of the state considered this statute as a whole, and held it valid, and as such it is presented to us for consideration. Considered as such, it is simply a statute imposing a penalty upon railroad corporations for a failure to pay certain debts. No individuals are thus punished, and no other corporations. The act singles out a certain class of debtors, and punishes them when, for like delinquencies, it punishes no others. They are not treated as other debtors, or equally with other debtors. They cannot appeal to the courts, as other litigants, under like conditions and with like protection. If litigation terminates adversely to them, they are mulcted in the attorney's fees of the successful plaintiff; if it terminates in their favor, they recover no attorney's fees. It is no sufficient answer to say that they are punished only when adjudged to be in the wrong. They do not enter the courts upon equal terms. They must pay attorney's fees if wrong. They do not recover any if right; while their adversaries recover if right, and pay nothing if wrong. In the suits, therefore, to which they are parties, they are discriminated against, and are not treated as others. They do not stand equal before the law. They do not receive its equal protection. All this is obvious from a mere inspection of the statute.

It is true, the amount of the attorney's fee which may be charged is small, but, if the state has the power to thus mulct them in a small amount, it has equal power to do so in a larger sum. The matter of amount does not determine the question

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of right, and the party who has a legal right may insist upon it if only a shilling be involved. As well said by Mr. Justice Bradley in Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 635:

Illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing in that way -- namely, by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure. This can only be obviated by adhering to the rule that constitutional provisions for the security of person and property should be liberally construed. A close and literal construction deprives them of half their efficacy, and leads to gradual depreciation of the right, as if it consisted more in sound than in substance. It is the duty of courts to be watchful for the constitutional rights of the citizens and against any stealthy encroachments thereon. Their motto should be obsta principiis.

While good faith and a knowledge of existing conditions on the part of a legislature are to be presumed, yet to carry that presumption to the extent of always holding that there must be some undisclosed and unknown reason for subjecting certain individuals or corporations to hostile and discriminating legislation is to make the protecting clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment a mere rope of sand, in no manner restraining state action.

It is well settled that corporations are persons within the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394; Pembina Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania, 125 U.S. 181, 189; Missouri Pacific Railway v. Mackey, 127 U.S. 205; Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway v. Herrick, 127 U.S. 210; Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway v. Beckwith, 129 U.S. 26; Charlotte & Columbia Railroad v. Gibbes, 142 U.S. 386; Covington & Lexington Turnpike Company v. Sandford, 164 U.S. 578. The rights and securities guarantied to persons by that instrument cannot be disregarded in respect to these artificial entities called "corporations" any more than they can be in respect to the individuals who are the equitable owners of the property belonging to such corporations. A state has no more power to deny to corporations the equal protection of the law than it has to individual...

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