213 U.S. 175 (1909), 521, Siler v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company

Docket Nº:No. 521
Citation:213 U.S. 175, 29 S.Ct. 451, 53 L.Ed. 753
Party Name:Siler v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company
Case Date:April 05, 1909
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 175

213 U.S. 175 (1909)

29 S.Ct. 451, 53 L.Ed. 753



Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company

No. 521

United States Supreme Court

April 5, 1909

Argued February 24, 25, 26, 1909




Where the federal questions raised by the bill are not merely colorable, but are raised in good faith and not in a fraudulent attempt to give jurisdiction to the circuit court, that court has jurisdiction, and can decide the case on local or state questions only, and it will not lose its jurisdiction of the case by omitting to decide the federal questions or deciding them adversely to the party claiming their benefit. Where the bill not only alleges that the statute creating the commission, but also the order of the commission sought to be enjoined, deprives complainant of its property without due process of law, and also violate other provisions of the Constitution, the circuit court obtains

Page 176

jurisdiction without reference to the particular violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Barney v. City of New York, 190 U.S. 430, distinguished.

The rule of this Court is not to decide constitutional questions if the case can be decided without doing so, and when, as in this case, it can dispose of the case by construction of the statute and on the lack of authority given by such statute to make the order complained of, it will do so, rather than on the constitutional questions involved.

Jurisdiction so extensive as to place in the hands of a commission power to make general maximum rates for all commodities between all points in the state is not to be implied, but must be given in language admitting no other reasonable construction, and this power cannot be found in the Kentucky Railroad Commission Act.

Notwithstanding the highest court of the state has not yet construed the statute involved, this Court must, in a case of which it has jurisdiction, construe it.

The fact that the legislature of a state gives to a railroad commission no power to raise rates, but only power to reduce rates found to be exorbitant after hearing on specific complaint, is an argument against construing the statute so as to give the commission power to fix maximum rates on all commodities.

Where a railroad commission, after a hearing on specific complaint as to a rate on a particular commodity, makes a general rate tariff for maximum rates on all commodities which is beyond its statutory power, the whole tariff falls, and the rate on the tariff on the particular commodity will not be separately sustained.

The Kentucky Railroad Commission having, after a hearing on complaints that the rates on lumber were too high, attempted to impose a general maximum intrastate tariff schedule, and the statute creating the commission not giving it authority to make such a schedule, this Court, without deciding whether either the statute or the order deprives the railroad companies of their property without due process of law, holds that the entire schedule of rates including those on lumber must fall as being beyond the jurisdiction of the commission to establish in that manner.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company, hereinafter called the company, filed its bill July 25, 1906, in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Kentucky to enjoin the enforcement of a certain order made by the Railroad Commission of Kentucky (hereafter called the commission), providing what are termed maximum rates on

Page 177

the transportation of all commodities upon the railroad of the company to and from all points within the state. In its bill, the company contended that the order as to rates of transportation was void because it was, upon several stated grounds, in violation of certain named provisions of the Constitution of the United States, among them being the claim that the rate were so low as to be confiscatory. It was also contended that the statute was an interference, in its results, with interstate commerce. The company also contended (among other objections not of a federal nature) that the commission had no power to make the order in question under a correct and proper construction of the state statute of March 10, 1900, under which the commission assumed to exercise the power to fix the rates provided for in its order.

The circuit court decided that such act, hereinafter fully set forth and called the "McChord act," and also the order of the Railroad Commission of Kentucky, complained of, irrespective of any claim that such order was confiscatory, violated the provisions of § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, prohibiting any state from depriving any person of property without due process of law, and from denying to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, and that the order of the commission, so far as it was applicable to the company, was therefore null and void, and the special commissioner who had been appointed to take evidence in the case as to the character of the rates, and other matters, was directed to so report. (The court decided the case upon the authority of Louisville &c. R. Co. v. McChord, 103 F. 216, reversed on other grounds in 183 U.S. 483.)

A final decree having been made pursuant to the decision of the court, the commission appealed directly to this Court from such decree. The proceedings which led up to the decree from which the commission has appealed, without the court passing upon the allegation of the confiscatory nature of the rates, were by means of a stipulation made in order to facilitate matters

Page 178

by reason of which the court decided, as matter of law, the order and act were both invalid, and it perpetually enjoined the enforcement of the order as to rates as well as the procuring of indictments against the officers of the company or the company itself.

The appellants disputed the jurisdiction of the circuit court upon grounds which are particularly stated in the opinion herein, and they took issue on many of the material allegations contained in the bill of complaint.

The facts upon which the questions in this case arise are as follows: the company was duly incorporated under an Act of the General Assembly of the State of Kentucky approved March 5, 1850. It has a large mileage, amounting to over 1,200 miles within the state, and it operates its road within the state in connection with other portions of its road in other states, having altogether in Kentucky and such other states a mileage of over 4,000 miles. It claims to have a contract right to fix rates as provided in its charter, and it contends that the order of the commission violates that right as well as other rights protected by the federal Constitution.

The state adopted a new constitution on the twenty-eighth day of September, 1891, by § 209 of which the present railroad commission of the state was established.

It is asserted by the company, though such assertion is denied, that up to March 10, 1900, the commission or its predecessors had not been empowered by constitutional or statutory provision to regulate or fix the rate of compensation which a railroad company might charge for the service of transporting freight or passengers over its lines in the state. On the above-mentioned date, the general assembly enacted what is generally called the "McChord act," which is set forth in full in the margin. *

Page 179

[29 S.Ct. 453] The act has not been construed by the Court of Appeals, the highest court of the State of Kentucky, upon the question

Page 180

hereinafter discussed, nor has it been held valid as to all of its provisions, with regard to the constitution of the state or of the United States, by any court, state or federal.

After its passage, and in December, 1904, and January and February, 1905, one Guenther, a citizen of Owensboro, Kentucky, made complaints to the commission in which he complained generally (but without specifying any in particular) that the rates charged by the company, and also by the Illinois Central Railway, and the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railway Company, on interstate freight to and from Owensboro, as compared with the rates on like freight to and from Evansville, Indiana, and on intrastate freight to and from points in Kentucky to and from Owensboro, were unjust and unreasonable. A petition in regard to interstate rates was subsequently filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission, where it is still pending and undetermined. As to regulating the local rates complained of, the commission then made no finding.

Afterwards, Guenther prepared an amended complaint, which was filed with the commission some time early in September, 1905, in which this company and all the other railroad companies operating lines in the State of Kentucky were made

Page 181

defendants, and wherein it was alleged, in substance (and again without any details), that all local freights from and to all local points in the State of Kentucky, as fixed and charged by the defendant railroad companies on all classes of freight, were excessive, discriminatory, and extortionate, and he prayed the commission to revise and adjust the rates not only in and out of Owensboro, but to revise and adjust the rates between all local points from and to every local point throughout the State of Kentucky.

Subsequently, on the fourteenth of September, 1905, three lumber companies of Louisville, Kentucky, tendered their petition to be made parties to the Guenther proceedings then pending, and they adopted the general language of his complaint with respect to all local rates in the state, and they added complaints in regard to the rates on logs, lumber, and...

To continue reading