250 U.S. 566 (1919), 53, Pennsylvania Railroad Company v. Public Service Commission of Pennsylvania

Docket Nº:No. 53
Citation:250 U.S. 566, 40 S.Ct. 36, 63 L.Ed. 1142
Party Name:Pennsylvania Railroad Company v. Public Service Commission of Pennsylvania
Case Date:November 10, 1919
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 566

250 U.S. 566 (1919)

40 S.Ct. 36, 63 L.Ed. 1142

Pennsylvania Railroad Company


Public Service Commission of Pennsylvania

No. 53

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 10, 1919

Argued October 24, 1919




A writ of error will lie to a judgment of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upholding a law of the state against an objection based on the federal Constitution, if the supreme court of the state refuses to allow an appeal. P. 568.

Want of power in a state commission to consider the constitutionality of a law which it seeks to enforce cannot limit the right of a party affected to raise the question in the state courts. Id.

As applied to an interstate train terminated by a mail car, the law of Pennsylvania (Laws 1911, p. 1053, § 7) forbidding the operation

Page 567

of any train consisting of United States mail or express cars without the rear end of the rear car's being equipped with a platform of thirty inches in width, with guard rails and steps, invades a subject of regulation fully occupied by Congress through the rules of the Postmaster General respecting the construction of mail cars and their equipment when used as end cars, and under the commerce clause, as is evinced by the Safety Appliance Act and the regulations of the Interstate Commerce Commission thereunder, particularly those permitting the employment of caboose cars, which are constantly used as end cars, without platforms. Id.

67 Pa.Super.Ct.Rep. 575 reversed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

HOLMES, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case was begun by a complaint to the Public Service Commission of Pennsylvania that the plaintiff in error, the Pennsylvania Railroad, ran a specified train the last car of which was not equipped at its rear end with a platform thirty inches in width, guard rails and steps, as required by a statute of Pennsylvania. Act of June 19, 1911, § 7. The train was moving in interstate commerce. The Railroad Company admitted the facts, but contended that it was not bound by the statute because the rear car was a mail car constructed in accordance with the regulations of the Post Office Department, and because the government of the United States had assumed control of the matter so far as to exclude such intermeddling on the part of a state. The Commission made an order that the Railroad

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Company should operate its train with the rear end of the rear car equipped as required by the state law. The Railroad Company appealed to the superior court, setting up that the order violated the commerce clause of the Constitution (Art. 1, § 8) and that, in view of the federal legislation and rules, including the order of the Interstate Commerce Commission dated March 13, 1911, and made under the Safety Appliance Act, and other matters referred to, the State Commission had no power to do what it did.

The superior court sustained the order holding itself bound by what it took to be the decision of the supreme court in Pennsylvania R. Co. v. Ewing, 241 Pa. 581, to the effect that nothing had been done by the United States inconsistent with the continued effect of the state law. An appeal to the supreme court was refused. On the strength of this, it now is argued that the refusal must have been upon the ground that the Commission was a purely administrative body; that it had no judicial power to declare the statute unconstitutional; that therefore no question of the constitutionality of the Act was before the superior court, and that this is implied because an appeal to the supreme court was a matter of right if the case had involved such a question. But whatever powers a state may deny to its commissions, it cannot give them power to do what the laws of the United States forbid, whether they call their action administrative or judicial. The superior court treated the question as open. The supreme court merely denied an appeal upon a point that probably was thought to have been decided already by the court.

We pass to the merits of the case. If all that had been done on behalf of the United States in the way of regulation had been to determine how mail cars should be built, and to exclude a thirty-inch platform, it might be said that the state law could be obeyed by putting a different

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car at the end of the train. It would be a tax upon the railroad when the company wished to run a mail train wholly made...

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