337 U.S. 426 (1949), 330, United States v. Interstate Commerce Commission

Docket Nº:No. 330
Citation:337 U.S. 426, 69 S.Ct. 1410, 93 L.Ed. 1451
Party Name:United States v. Interstate Commerce Commission
Case Date:June 20, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 426

337 U.S. 426 (1949)

69 S.Ct. 1410, 93 L.Ed. 1451

United States

v.

Interstate Commerce Commission

No. 330

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1949

Argued March 2, 1949

[69 S.Ct. 1412] APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Syllabus

The United States, as a shipper, having undertaken to provide wharfage and handling services at certain piers, requested the railroads to make an allowance for expenses thus incurred, since the shipside rates allegedly included charges for wharfage and handling services. The railroads refused to make an allowance and to perform the services. The United States thereupon filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission a complaint alleging that, in refusing to make an allowance for wharfage and handling services, the railroads had exacted payment of rates which were unreasonable, unjustly discriminatory, and otherwise in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act, and asking that the Commission find the charges unlawful and award the Government reparations. The Commission denied reparations, and ordered the complaint dismissed. The United States then sued in the District Court to set aside the Commission order. The Interstate Commerce Commission and the United States itself were made defendants. The District Court, composed of three judges, dismissed the suit. On direct appeal to this Court, held: the dismissal of the suit was error, and the case should have been considered on its merits. Pp. 428-430.

1. Although the case be that of United States v. United States et al., the principle that a person may not maintain an action against himself is inapplicable, since there are involved here controversies of a type which are traditionally justiciable. Pp. 430-431.

2. Provisions of law making the United States a statutory defendant in court actions challenging Commission orders do not evidence a congressional purpose to bar the Government from challenging such orders. Pp. 431-432.

(a) Congress did not intend to make it impossible for the Government to press a just claim which could be vindicated only by challenging a Commission order in Court. P. 431.

(b) However anomalous it may be for the Attorney General to appear on both sides of the same controversy, nothing in the

Page 427

Interstate Commerce Act indicates a congressional purpose to amend prior statutes which imposed primary responsibility on the Attorney General to seek judicial redress for the Government. Pp. 431-432.

(c) The Interstate Commerce Act contains adequate provisions for protection of Commission orders by the Commission and by the railroads when, as here, they are the real parties in interest, and the Commission and the railroads in this case have availed themselves of the statutory authorization. P. 432.

3. The District Court had jurisdiction of the action under 28 U.S.C. § 41(28) [now § 1336], and that jurisdiction was not barred in this case by § 9 of the Interstate Commerce Act, 49 U.S.C. § 9. Pp. 432-440.

(a) Section 9 does not give complete finality to a Commission order merely because a shipper elected to file a complaint with the Commission. Pp. 433-440.

(b) A Commission order dismissing a shipper's claim for damages under 49 U.S.C. § 9 is an "order" subject to challenge under 28 U.S.C. § 41(28) [now § 1336]. Pp. 440-441.

4. Judicial review of a Commission order denying reparations does not require a three-judge court. Pp. 441-443.

5. The fact that this case was heard and determined by a District Court of three judges, rather than by one judge, does not require dismissal here, and the cause is remanded to the District Court for determination on the merits of the allegations of the complaint. Pp. 443-444.

78 F.Supp. 580 reversed.

A District Court of three judges dismissed a suit brought by the United States to set aside an order of the Interstate Commerce Commission (269 I.C.C. 141) denying an award of reparations to the Government as a shipper. 78 F.Supp. 580. The United States took a direct appeal to this Court. Reversed and remanded, p. 444.

Page 428

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

It is contended here that the United States, as a shipper, is barred from challenging in federal courts an Interstate Commerce Commission order which denies the Government a recovery in damages for exaction of an allegedly unlawful railroad rate. Other contentions, if sustained, would deny federal courts all power to entertain an action by any shipper challenging a Commission order denying damages to the shipper.

During the war, existing tariffs of many railroads embodied wharfage charges to compensate the railroads for moving goods from railroad cars to piers and from piers to railroad cars. When the United States took over certain piers at Norfolk, Virginia, it began to perform these wharfage services for itself, and requested the railroads to make the United States an allowance for the expenses incurred in performing the services. The railroads refused to make an allowance. Upon this refusal, the Government requested the railroads to perform the services themselves. The railroads refused to perform the services.

The United States filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission a complaint against the railroads charging that exaction of pay for unperformed services was unjust, unreasonable, discriminatory, excessive, and in violation of certain sections of the Interstate Commerce Act.1 The

Page 429

Complaint asked the Commission to find the charges unlawful. Further relief asked, under the Interstate Commerce Act,2 was that the Government be awarded damages (reparations) on account of the alleged unlawful exactions. The Commission found that the charges were not [69 S.Ct. 1413] unjustly discriminatory, unreasonable, or otherwise in violation of the Act. Accordingly, the Commission denied reparations and ordered the complaint dismissed. United States v. Aberdeen & Rockfish R. Co., 269 I.C.C. 141(1947).

The United States brought this action in a United States District Court to set aside the Commission order. The complaint charged that the Commission's conclusions were not supported by its findings, that the findings were not supported by any substantial evidence, that the order was based on a misapplication of law and was "otherwise arbitrary, capricious and without support in and contrary to law and the evidence." The Interstate Commerce Commission was made a defendant. The United States was also made a defendant because of a statutory requirement that any action to set aside an order of the Interstate Commerce Commission "shall be brought . . . against the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 46. Railroads that collected the wharfage charges intervened as defendants under authority of 28 U.S.C. § 45a. The Attorney General appeared for the Government as both plaintiff and defendant. Without reaching the merits of the case, the District Court composed of three judges dismissed the cause on the theory that the Government could not maintain a suit against itself. The court also indicated its belief that a three-judge court was without jurisdiction

Page 430

of the suit. 78 F.Supp. 580. The case is here on direct appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 47a, as amended 28 U.S.C. § 1253.

In this Court, the Commission and the railroad intervenor defendants support the District Court's dismissal for the reasons given by that court. Alternative reasons are also urged. We hold that the dismissal was error, and that the case should have been considered on its merits.

First. There is much argument with citation of many cases to establish the long recognized general principle that no person may sue himself. Properly understood the general principle is sound, for courts only adjudicate justiciable controversies. They do not engage in the academic pastime of rendering judgments in favor of persons against themselves. Thus, a suit filed by John Smith against John Smith might present no case or controversy which courts could determine. But one person named John Smith might have a justiciable controversy with another John Smith. This illustrates that courts must look behind names that symbolize the parties to determine whether a justiciable case or controversy is presented.

While this case is United States v. United States, et al., it involves controversies of a type which are traditionally justiciable. The basis question is whether railroads have illegally exacted sums of money from the United States. Unless barred by statute, the Government is not less entitled than any other shipper to invoke administrative and judicial protection. To collect the alleged illegal exactions from the railroads, the United States instituted proceedings before the Interstate Commerce Commission. In pursuit of the same objective, the Government challenged the legality of the Commission's action. This suit therefore is a step in proceedings to settle who is legally entitled to sums of money, the Government or the railroads. The order if valid would defeat the Government's claim to that

Page 431

money. But the Government charged that the order was issued arbitrarily, and without substantial evidence. This charge alone would be enough to present a justiciable controversy. Chicago Junction Case, 264 U.S. 258, 262-266. Consequently, the established principle that a person cannot create a justiciable controversy against himself has no application here.

Second. It is contended that the provisions of the Act making the Government a statutory defendant in court actions challenging Commission orders show a congressional purpose to bar the Government from challenging such orders. Legislative history is cited in support of this contention. If the contention be accepted, Congress, by making the Government a [69 S.Ct. 1414] statutory defendant in such cases, has deprived the United States as a shipper of powers of self protection accorded...

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