Alma Motor Co v. Axle Co

Decision Date09 December 1946
Docket NumberNo. 11,TIMKEN-DETROIT,11
Citation67 S.Ct. 231,329 U.S. 129,91 L.Ed. 128
PartiesALMA MOTOR CO. v. AXLE CO. et al. Re
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 129-131 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Thomas J. Hughes, of Detroit, Mich., and John G. Buchanan, of Pittsburgh, Pa., for petitioner.

Mr. William A. Strauch, of Washington, D.C., for respondent Timkin-Detroit Axle Co.

Mr. John F. Lonnett, Asst. Atty. Gen., for The United States.

The CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Certiorari was granted in this case February 5, 1945, 324 U.S. 832, 65 S.Ct. 587, 89 L.Ed. 1398, on a petition addressed to the question of the constitutionality of the Royalty Adjustment Act of October 31, 1942,1 and of Royalty Adjustment Order No. W—3, issued by the War Department July 28, 1943. We find now, however, that the Circuit Court of Appeals had before it, not only the constitutional question, which was decided, but also a nonconstitutional question, which might properly have alone served as an adequate ground on which to dispose of the appeal. This non-constitutional question was neither considered nor decided by the court below, nor argued here. We have concluded, therefore, that we should not pass on the constitutional question at this time, but should vacate the judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals, and remand the case to it for decision of any non-constitutional issues material to the appeal.

To explain the reasons for this conclusion, we must state the history of the present proceedings in some detail.

They were begun by a complaint in a District Court filed by respondent, The Timken-Detroit Axle Company, against petitioner, Alma Motor Company, asking a declaratory judgment as to their respective rights under a patent held by Alma and a coextensive license from Alma to Timken. The complaint alleged the existence of the patent, purporting to cover certain 'transfer cases', or auxiliary automotive transmissions, and the license, by which Timken was authorized to manufacture the patented articles and required to pay certain specified royalties. It further alleged that Timken was engaged in manufacturing various designs of transfer cases, that some of these were once believed to have been covered by Alma's patent and had been made the subject of royalty payments, but on the basis of later information Timken had concluded that none of them were covered, and that the patent was invalid. It asked for a judgment confirming this conclusion.

Alma answered, claiming that all Timken's transfer cases were covered, that the patent was valid, and that Timken was estopped from challenging validity, and counterclaimed for a money judgment for unpaid royalties.

Following a trial, the District Court filed findings and an opinion,2 and entered judgment December 2, 1942. It held Timken estopped from challenging the validity of Alma's patent; that certain specified types of Timken's transfer cases (generally those denominated T—32 and T—43) were covered by the patent and license; that Timken was indebted to Alma for royalties thereon; and that other types (generally those denominated T—79), were outside the patent and license. The court indicated that unless the parties could agree on the amount of the royalties so held to be payable, a special master would be appointed to determine the amount.

Shortly before this judgment was entered, Congress enacted the Royalty Adjustment Act, which Alma seeks to attack here. The primary purpose of this Act was to reduce royalties for which the United States was ultimately liable on inventions manufactured for it by a licensee, from pre-war rates to rates appropriate to the volume of production in war-time. Whenever during the war a government contractor manufactured under a license, and the royalties seemed excessive to the head of the department concerned, the latter was empowered to stop payments by notice to the licensor and licensee, and after a hearing, to fix by order 'fair and just' royalties, 'taking into account the conditions of wartime production.'3 Thereafter, the licensor could collect royalties from the licensee only at the rate so determined. If the licensor felt that the reduction was unfair, his remedy was by suit against the United States in the Court of Claims, where he could recover 'fair and just compensation * * * taking into account the conditions of wartime production.'4 Whatever reduction was effected by the order was to inure to the benefit of the United States.

The notice, stopping payment of royalties from Timken to Alma, was issued by the War Department December 30, 1942. Royalty Adjustment Order No. W—3 followed on July 28, 1943, fixing a 'fair and just' royalty at zero. The basis of this determination was the alleged invalidity of Alma's patent, which the United States claims that the Act permits it to assert.5

In the meantime, Alma had taken an appeal from Paragraph 5 of the judgment of the District Court, which held that the T—79 transfer cases were outside the patent. Timken did not appeal. After the Order was promulgated, Timken moved to dismiss the appeal and remand to the District Court with directions to vacate its judgment. The motion was predicated on an affidavit that Timken had manufactured transfer cases for the United States alone, together with the argument that the operation of the Act and Order transferred jurisdiction of the subject matter of the entire case to the Court of Claims. Alma countered with an attack on the constitutionality of the Act and Order, primarily as working a deprivation of property in contravention of the Fifth Amendment.

The United States had at this time already submitted an amicus brief, in which it argued that the Order had made the appeal moot; and when Alma's constitutional attack was filed, the United States intervened in support of the Act and Order.

In its opinion6 the Circuit Court of Appeals considered that the question of the applicability of the Act and Order in this case was simply a question of their constitutional validity. It proceeded to consider this latter question, and decided that both the Act and the Order were entirely valid. Accordingly, it entered the following order:

'* * * it is now here ordered and adjudged by this Court that Paragraph 5 of the judgment of the said District Court in this case be, and the same is hereby vacated and the cause is remanded to the District Court with directions to proceed no further therein unless and until it shall appear to the Court that a justiciable controversy again7 exists between the parties arising out of the facts set forth in the com- plaint, except that the Court may, if it deems such action to be appropriate, vacate all or any part of the remainder of the judgment and dismiss the complaint as moot.'

The War Department notice was issued after the District Court's judgment, but before appeal was filed in the Circuit Court of Appeals. It appears that at no time did any party urge on the Circuit Court of Appeals or did that court pass on the question whether the T—79 transfer cases were covered by Alma's pat nt and license. Indeed, it was not until after we had granted certiorari and heard argument at the October 1944 term on the constitutional question, and set the case down for further argument this term, that the United States pointed to this omission, and suggested that the Circuit Court of Appeals should have avoided the question of constitutionality by first considering the question of coverage. It argued here that the prior determination of any non-constitutional questions which might dispose of a controversy is a practice which is dictated by sound principles of judicial administration. It moved to vacate the judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals, and to remand the case to it for such determination. Both Alma and Timken opposed the motion. Action was withheld pending argument on the motion and the case itself.

This Court has said repeatedly that it ought not pass on the constitutionality of an act of Congress unless such adjudication is unavoidable. This is true even though the question is properly presented by the record. If two questions are raised, one of non-constitutional and the other of constitutional nature, and a decision of the non-constitutional question would make unnecessary a decision of the constitutional question, the former will be decided.8 This same rule should guide the lower courts as well as this one. We believe that the structure of the problems before the Circuit Court of Appeals required the application of the rule to this case.

At the outset that court was confronted with the merits of the appeal, which involved simply the coverage by the patent and license of the T—79 transfer cases. Later, however, it was confronted also with a problem of jurisdictional nature. This involved the effect wrought by the Act and Order on its power to proceed to an adjudication on the merits. If for any reason, the Act and Order had no applicability in the case, the court should proceed to the merits. If, however, they were controlling, Alma was relegated to its statutory remedy against the United States, and the court would be required to dismiss the appeal, and to vacate Paragraph 5 of the judgment in the District Court.

In the determination of this jurisdictional problem, we are of the opinion that the Circuit Court of Appeals erred. It assumed that this problem involved only the question of the constitutionality of the Act and Order. But the Act and Order whether or not constitutional, do not control the disposition of this case unless they were intended to apply to it. The question of their applicability is a non-constitutional question, the decision of which might have made unnecessary any consideration of constitutionality.

Were the Act and Order intended to apply? Their terms seem to make that depend upon whether the subject-matter of the appeal—the T—79 transfer cases—were covered by the patent...

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