227 U.S. 278 (1913), 610, Home Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Los Angeles

Docket Nº:No. 610
Citation:227 U.S. 278, 33 S.Ct. 312, 57 L.Ed. 510
Party Name:Home Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Los Angeles
Case Date:February 24, 1913
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 278

227 U.S. 278 (1913)

33 S.Ct. 312, 57 L.Ed. 510

Home Telephone and Telegraph Company


Los Angeles

No. 610

United States Supreme Court

February 24, 1913

Submitted October 28, 1912




One whose rights protected by a provision of the federal Constitution which is identical with a provision of the state constitution are invaded by state officers claiming to act under a state statute is not debarred from seeking relief in the federal court under the federal Constitution until after the state court has declared that the acts were authorized by the statute.

The provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment are generic in terms, and are addressed not only to the states but to every person, whether natural or judicial, who is the repository of state power.

The reach of the Fourteenth Amendment is coextensive with any exercise by a power, in whatever form exerted.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal judicial power can redress the wrong done by a state officer misusing the authority of the state with which he is clothed; under such circumstances, inquiry whether the state has authorized the wrong is irrelevant. Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, followed. Barney v. New York, 193 U.S. 430, distinguished.

Acts done under the authority of a municipal ordinance passed in virtue of power conferred by the state are embraced by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The power which exists to enforce the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment is typified by the immediate and efficient federal right to enforce the contract clause of the Constitution as against those violating or attempting to violate its provision.

The facts, which involve the jurisdiction of the District Court of a suit arising under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the validity of an ordinance of Los Angeles, California, establishing telephone rates, are stated in the opinion.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The appellant, a California corporation furnishing telephone service in the City of Los Angeles, sued the city and certain of its officials to prevent the putting into effect of a city ordinance establishing telephone rates for the year commencing July 1, 1911.

It was alleged that, by the Constitution and laws of the

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state, the city was given a right to fix telephone rates, and had passed the assailed ordinance in the exercise of the general authority thus conferred. It was charged that the rates fixed were so unreasonably low that their enforcement would bring about the confiscation of the property of the corporation, and hence the ordinance was repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The averments as to the confiscatory character of the rates were as ample as they could possibly have been made. The charge of confiscation was supported by statements as to the value of the property, and the sum which might reasonably be expected from the business upon the application of the rates assailed. The confiscatory character of the rates, it was moreover alleged, had been demonstrated by the putting into effect during the previous year of rates of the same amount as those assailed, which it was charged the corporation at great sacrifice, had, after protest, submitted to in order to afford a practical illustration of the confiscation which would result.

Being of the opinion that no jurisdiction was disclosed by the bill, the court refused to grant a restraining order or allow a preliminary injunction, and thereafter, on the filing of a formal plea to the jurisdiction, the bill was dismissed for want of power as a federal court to consider it. This direct appeal was then taken.

The plea to the jurisdiction was a follows:

. . . that this court ought not to take jurisdiction of this suit, for that the said suit does not really or substantially involve a dispute or controversy properly within the jurisdiction of this court, forasmuch as the Constitution of the State of California, in Article 1, section 13 thereof, provides that "no person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law;" that this complainant, a citizen of the State of California, has never invoked the aid or protection of its [33 S.Ct. 313] said state to prevent the alleged taking of its property,

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nor has complainant appealed to the courts of said state, nor to any of them, to enforce the law of said state.

The ground of challenge to the jurisdiction advanced by the plea may be thus stated: as the acts of the state officials (the city government) complained of were alleged to be wanting in due process of law, and therefore repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment, a ground which, on the face of the bill, if well founded, also presumptively caused the action complained of to be repugnant to the due process clause of the state constitution, there being no diversity of citizenship, there was no federal jurisdiction. In other words, the plea asserted that, where, in a given case, taking the facts averred to be true, the acts of state officials violated the Constitution of the United States, and likewise, because of the coincidence of a state constitutional prohibition, were presumptively repugnant to the state constitution, such acts could not be treated as acts of the state within the Fourteenth Amendment, and hence no power existed in a federal court to consider the subject until, by final action of an appropriate state court, it was decided that such acts were authorized by the state, and were therefore not repugnant to the state constitution. There is no room for doubt that it was upon this interpretation of the plea that the court held it had no power as a federal court. The court said:

It is true that the bill in the present case alleges that, if the ordinance complained of

is enforced, and your complainant thereby prevented from charging and receiving higher rates than the rates fixed by said ordinance, the State of California will thereby deprive your complainant of its property without due process of law,

etc. This charge, however, that the ordinance complained of is state action, is but a legal conclusion, while the facts alleged are that the ordinance, if confiscatory, as shown by the bill, is directly prohibited by the Constitution of

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the state, which, in article 1, § 13, expressly provides, among other things, "No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."

Thus, the case at bar comes within the rulings of the circuit court of appeals in the Seattle and San Francisco cases, and is precisely covered by the conclusions of the court in the latter case as follows:

What we hold is that the averments of the bill itself exclude the case from the cognizance of the federal court as a case arising under the Constitution of the United States by alleging that the very ordinances which the appellees relied upon as constituting a violation of its contracts have been enacted in violation of the positive law of the state.

It is true that, in passages of the opinion subsequent to those just quoted, there are forms of expression which, when separated from their context, might tend to justify the inference that the court thought city ordinances of the character of the one assailed could not, in any event, be treated as state action. But when the passages referred to are considered in connection with the context of the opinion, it is certain that those expressions were but a reiteration in a changed form of statement of the previous ground -- that is to say, that state action could not be predicated upon the ordinance because, if it was treated as repugnant to the due process clause of the Constitution of the United States, it would also have to be considered as in conflict with the state constitution. Under this hypothesis, the decision was that it could not be assumed that the state had authorized its officers to do acts in violation of the state constitution until the court of last resort of the state had determined that such acts were authorized.

Coming to consider the real significance of this doctrine, we think it is so clearly in conflict with the decisions of this

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Court as to leave no doubt that plain error was committed in announcing and applying it. In view, however, of the fact that the proposition was sanctioned by the court below, and was by it deemed to be supported by the persuasive authority of two opinions of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, before coming to consider the decided cases, we analyze some of the conceptions upon which the proposition must rest in order to show its inherent unsoundness, to make its destructive character manifest, and to indicate its departure from the substantially unanimous view which has prevailed from the beginning.

In the first place, the proposition addresses itself not to the mere distribution of the judicial power granted by the Constitution, but substantially denies the existence of power under the Constitution over the subject with which the proposition is concerned. It follows that the limitation which it imposes would be beyond possible correction by legislation. Its restriction would, moreover, attach to the exercise of federal judicial power under all circumstances, whether the issue concerned original jurisdiction or arose in the course of a controversy to which otherwise jurisdiction would extend. Thus, being applicable equally to all federal courts under all circumstances, in every stage of a proceeding, the [33 S.Ct. 314] enforcement of the doctrine would hence render impossible the performance of the duty with which the federal courts are charged under the Constitution. Such paralysis would inevitably ensue, since the...

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