207 U.S. 463 (2011), The Employers' Liability Cases

Citation:207 U.S. 463, 28 S.Ct. 141, 52 L.Ed. 297
Party Name:The Employers' Liability Cases
Case Date:January 06, 1908
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 463

207 U.S. 463 (2011)

28 S.Ct. 141, 52 L.Ed. 297

The Employers' Liability Cases

United States Supreme Court

January 6, 1908





In testing the constitutionality of an act of Congress, this Court confines itself to the power of Congress to pass the act, and may not consider any real or imaginary evils arising from its execution.

Under the grant given by the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce and the authority given to use all means appropriate to the exercise of the powers conferred, Congress has power to regulate the relation of master and servant to the extent that such regulations are confined solely to interstate commerce.

An act addressed to all common carriers engaged in interstate commerce, and imposing a liability upon them in favor of any of their employees, without qualification or restriction as to the nature of the business at the time of the injury, of necessity includes subjects wholly outside of the power of Congress under the commerce clause of the Constitution.

The legislative power of Congress over the District of Columbia and the territories is plenary, and does not depend upon the special grants of power, such as the commerce clause of the Constitution.

To restrict a general act of Congress relating to common carriers, by interpretation to interstate commerce, so as to validate it as to the carriers in the several states, would unduly restrict it as to carriers in the District of Columbia and the territories.

While it is the duty of this Court to so construe an act of Congress as to render it constitutional if it can be lawfully done, an ambiguous statute cannot be rewritten to accomplish this result.

Where a statute contains some provisions that are constitutional and some that are not, effect may be given to the former by separating them from the latter, but this rule does not apply where the provisions of the statute are dependent upon each other and are indivisible, or where it does not plainly appear that Congress would have enacted the constitutional legislation without the unconstitutional provisions.

One engaging in interstate commerce does not thereby submit all his business to the regulating power of Congress.

Page 464

While the Act of Congress of June 11, 1906, 34 Stat. 232, known as the Employers' Liability Act, embraces subjects within the authority of Congress to regulate commerce, it also includes subjects not within its constitutional power, and the two are so interblended in the statute that they are incapable of separation, and the statute is therefore repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, and nonenforceable. *

The facts, which involve the constitutionality of the act of Congress of July 11, 1906, relating to the liability of common carriers in the District of Columbia and territories and common carriers engaged in interstate commerce to their employees, are stated in the opinion.

Page 489

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

To dispose of these cases, it is necessary to decide a fundamental question which is equally decisive as to both. They were argued at the bar together, and, because of their unity, have been considered at the same time.

As stated in the declarations as finally amended, recovery was sought in each case of damages occasioned by the death of the respective intestates while serving as a fireman on a locomotive actually engaged in moving an interstate commerce train. In each of the cases it was alleged that the intestate met his death through no fault of his, but solely through the fault of employees of the company, who were his fellow servants. In both, the right of action was expressly based upon the act of Congress of June 11, 1906, entitled

An Act Relating to Liability of Common Carriers in the District of Columbia and territories and Common Carriers Engaged in Commerce between the states and between the states and Foreign Nations to their Employees.

By demurrer in each of the cases, the act relied upon was assailed as being repugnant to the Constitution of

Page 490

the United States. In both cases, the Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, asked to be allowed to intervene for the purpose of supporting the constitutionality of the act. In the first (the Howard) case, this request was granted. In the second (the Brooks) case, the court, while denying the request upon the ground that it knew of no law authorizing such an intervention simply because the validity of [28 S.Ct. 142] an act of Congress was drawn in question, nevertheless permitted the United States to be heard as a friend of the court. In both cases, the act was held to be unconstitutional, the demurrer was sustained, and the declarations dismissed. These direct writs of error were then prosecuted, and at bar the cases have been argued, by printed brief and orally, not only by the parties in interest, but on behalf of the United States through the Attorney General as a friend of the court.

As the issue to be decided is whether the courts below were right in holding that the act of Congress, which was the basis of the respective causes of action, was repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, we reproduce the text of that act in the margin.{1}

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Before coming to consider the contentions concerning the constitutionality of the act, we notice certain suggestions which proceed upon the assumption that they may concern the issue for decision. It is said that the statute inordinately extends the power of Congress and unduly diminishes the legislative authority of the states, since it seeks to exert the power of Congress as to the relation of master and servant, a subject hitherto treated as being exclusively within the control of the states, and that in practice its execution will cripple the state and enlarge the federal judicial power, since its effect will be to cause every action concerning an injury to a servant employed by a common carrier who may engage in interstate commerce to cease to be a matter of state jurisdiction, and to be cognizable in the federal Courts. Moreover, it is said, the statute will create confusion and uncertainty as to the rights of those dwelling within the states, that it will operate injuriously upon all who choose to engage in interstate commerce

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as a common carrier, since those who so do will become subject to the liability which the statute creates, to be tested by the rules of negligence which the statute embodies, although such rules be unknown to the laws of the several states. Besides, the statute, it is urged, discriminates against all who engage as common carriers in interstate commerce, since it makes them responsible without limit as to the amount to one servant for an injury suffered by the acts of a co-servant, even in a case where the negligence of the injured [28 S.Ct. 143] servant has contributed to the result, hence placing all employers who are common carriers in a disfavored, and all their employees in a favored, class. Indeed, it is insisted the statute proceeds upon contradictory principles, since it imposes the increased responsibility just stated upon the master, presumably in order to make him more careful in the selection of his servants, and yet minimizes the necessity for care on the part of the servant by allowing recovery, although he may have been negligent.

But without even for the sake of argument conceding the correctness of these suggestions, we at once dismiss them from consideration as concerning merely the expediency of the act, and not the power of Congress to enact it. We say this since, in testing the constitutionality of the act, we must confine ourselves to the power to pass it, and may not consider evils which it is supposed will arise from the execution of the law, whether they be real or imaginary.

All the questions which arise concern the nature and extent of the power of Congress to regulate commerce. That subject has been so often here considered and has been so fully elaborated in recent decisions, two of which are noted in the margin,{2} that we content ourselves, for the purposes of this case, with repeating the broad definition of the commerce power as expounded by Mr. chief Justice Marshall in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 196, where he said:

We are now arrived at the inquiry, what is this power?

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It is the power to regulate -- that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution. . . . If, as has always been understood, the sovereignty of Congress, though limited to specified objects, is plenary as to those objects, the power over commerce with foreign nations and among the several states is vested in Congress as absolutely as it would be in a single government, having in its constitution the same restrictions on the exercise of the power as are found in the Constitution of the United States.

Accepting, as we now do and as has always been done, this comprehensive statement of the power of Congress, we also adopt and reiterate the perspicuous statement made in the same case (p. 194), of those matters of state control which are not embraced in the grant of authority to Congress to regulate commerce:

It is not intended to say that these words comprehend that commerce which is completely internal, which is carried on between man and man in a state, or between different parts of the same state, and which does not extend to...

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