223 U.S. 605 (1912), 70, Philadelphia Company v. Stimson

Docket Nº:No. 70
Citation:223 U.S. 605, 32 S.Ct. 340, 56 L.Ed. 570
Party Name:Philadelphia Company v. Stimson *
Case Date:March 04, 1912
Court:United States Supreme Court


Page 605

223 U.S. 605 (1912)

32 S.Ct. 340, 56 L.Ed. 570

Philadelphia Company


Stimson *

No. 70

United States Supreme Court

March 4, 1912

Argued November 16, 1911




Exemption of the United States from suit does not protect its officers from personal liability to persons whose rights of property they have wrongfully invaded.

In case of injury threatened by illegal action, an officer of the United states cannot claim immunity from injunctive process.

Where complainant does not ask the court to interfere with an officer

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of the United states acting within his official discretion, but challenges his authority to do the act complained of, the suit is not against the United States.

While the general rule is that equity has no jurisdiction over the prosecution of crimes, it may, when it is essential to the protection of property rights, as to which the protection of a court of equity has already been invoked, enjoin the institution of criminal actions involving the same legal questions.

An officer transcending the limits of his authority under a constitutional statute may inflict similar injuries on property or individuals as though he were proceeding under an unconstitutional statute, and, in either event, equity may intervene to restrain unfounded prosecutions.

A court of equity having control of the person of defendant has jurisdiction of an action to restrain him from violating the rights of the complainant in regard to property not within its jurisdiction, and may compel obedience to its decree. Phelps v. McDonald, 99 U.S. 298.

While the establishment of a general system of harbor lines for the protection of navigation is not of itself an injury to property and cannot be restrained, equity may enjoin an officer from taking measures to maintain the limits against an individual proprietor and so prevent him from enjoying what he asserts to be a lawful use of his own property.

A riparian proprietor of land bounded by a stream continues to hold to the stream as a boundary where the banks are changed by accretion or erosion, but if the banks are changed by avulsion, the title is not changed, but remains at the former line. This rule applies alike to all streams and rivers, no matter how strong and swift they may be.

To bring a sudden change of channel within the rule that it will not affect the boundary line, it must be perceptible when it takes place. Nebraska v. Iowa, 143 U.S. 359.

In this case, held that the changes in the line of complainant's property were due to gradual erosion, and not to sudden change of channel, and that the stream remained the boundary line.

The title to the soil under navigable waters within their territorial limits, and the extent of riparian rights, are governed by the law of the several states subject to the paramount authority of Congress, and under the authority of Congress, the Secretary of War may fix harbor lines superseding those fixed by the state.

Commerce include navigation; Gilman v. Philadelphia, 3 Wall. 713,

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and the power of Congress over navigation has no limit except those prescribed in the Constitution. Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 196.

The authority of Congress is not limited to water as it flowed at any preceding time. Alteration in the course of a stream does not affect the power of Congress.

The public rights of navigation follow the course of the stream.

It is for Congress to decide what shall or shall not be deemed in judgment of law an obstruction to navigation. Pennsylvania v. Wheeling Bridge Co., 18 How. 421.

Authority given by Congress to the Secretary of War to establish harbor lines is not exhausted in laying the lines once; the Secretary may change them at subsequent times in order to protect navigation from obstruction.

33 App.D.C. 338 affirmed.

The facts, which involve the construction and constitutionality of acts of Congress giving the Secretary of War power to establish harbor lines in navigable waters of the United States, and the validity and effect of the action of the Secretary of War thereunder in regard to harbor lines established by him in the harbor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are stated in the opinion.

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HUGHES, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was brought in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to set aside certain harbor lines in the harbor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so far as they encroached upon land owned by the complainant, and to restrain the Secretary of War from causing criminal proceedings to be instituted against the complainant because of the reclamation and occupation of its land outside the prescribed limits. The Court of Appeals of the District affirmed a decree sustaining a demurrer to the bill, and the complainant appeals.

The allegations of the bill, in substance, are as follows:

The complainant, a corporation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is the owner in fee of "Brunot's Island," formerly Chartier's or Hamilton's island, in the Ohio River, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. In 1858, a statute was enacted in [32 S.Ct. 342] Pennsylvania, providing for the appointment of commissioners to ascertain and mark the

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lines of ordinary high and low water in the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers in the vicinity of Pittsburgh. The act recited that the lines of land along the shores of the rivers had not been clearly ascertained, and it was important to all persons interested that their several rights and privileges should be defined. After the commissioners' surveys had been completed and the lines located, opportunity was to be afforded in the court by which they were appointed, for any needed corrections, and the map or plan finally determined upon was to be recorded. The statute declared that "the lines so approved shall forever after be deemed, adjudged, and taken firm and stable for the purposes aforesaid." Proceedings were had accordingly and the high and low water lines along the shore of Brunot's Island were definitely fixed. In consequence, the bill asserts that all the land, whether or not under water, inside of the commissioners' lines, became the property of the owners of Brunot's Island, and that, by virtue of the statute and the action of the commissioners under it in fixing the high water line as a permanent boundary, the right of the owners of the island to accretions beyond that line was taken away, while at the same time they were no longer subject to loss or diminution of their land by reason of its submergence "through the avulsion of floods or freshets or through gradual erosion."

Subsequent to the establishment, in 1865, of the state commissioners' line, a considerable portion of the shore of the island, "on the so-called back channel, within the said high water mark," was washed away from time to time by heavy floods and freshets, so that a large part of the upland was slightly submerged, but not to an extent sufficient to permit of navigation. Some years ago, the United States government, in order to increase the depth of water in the harbor of Pittsburgh, caused a dam to be constructed across the Ohio River a short distance below Brunot's Island, known as the Davis Island dam. And

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the effect of this dam, says the bill, by the increase of the depth of water in the channel, was to submerge Brunot's Island to a far greater extent, and to make the water over the complainant's land navigable "at certain times, and for certain purposes" where it was not navigable before.

In 1895, the Secretary of War, claiming to act under the authority of § 12 of the Act of Congress of September 19, 1890, and knowing that the shore of Brunot's Island had been washed away by floods and freshets, established a harbor line which ran across the complainant's land within the line of the state commissioners. It is further alleged that, although the submerged land was generally covered by water, "it was not ordinarily navigable water," and "has never constituted, nor does it now constitute, a part of the public navigable waters of the United States;" that no authority was conferred by the Act of Congress upon the Secretary of War to regulate or interfere with the use of the complainant's land by the establishment of harbor lines upon the same, and that, even if the water over this land was in fact part of the public navigable waters of the United States, without being rendered thus navigable by the construction of the dam, still the Secretary of War had no right so to run the harbor line over the land in question as to deprive the complainant of its use and enjoyment. It was the right of the complainant, the bill avers, to repair the damage caused by floods and freshets, and to reclaim the submerged portion by filling in or wharfing, "keeping at all times within the lines of the part that had been torn away by the violence of the waters."

In 1907, the Secretary of War, claiming authority under § 11 of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1899, against the complainant's protest, changed the harbor line. The report of the United States engineer at Pittsburgh stated that the conditions of high and low water had not changed since 1895, but as, along a part of the shore of the island,

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the harbor line of 1895 ran several hundred feet outside high water mark as it then existed, it seemed advisable to change it so as to coincide with the actual high water mark. A copy of the report with the order of the Secretary of War, dated February 23, 1907, was annexed to the bill and made a part of it. In this it is stated that the location of the proposed harbor lines was within the bed of the stream as it existed as a physical fact.

The bill further shows that, to facilitate the delivery of coal for the operation of its power house on the island, the complainant desired to...

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