City of St Louis v. United Railways Company No 193 City of St Louis v. St Louis Suburban Railway Company No 194 City of St Louis v. St Louis Meramec River Railroad Company No 195

Decision Date18 May 1908
Docket NumberNos. 193,195,194,s. 193
Citation52 L.Ed. 1054,28 S.Ct. 630,210 U.S. 266
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. William F. Woerner and Charles W. Bates for appellant.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 267-269 intentionally omitted] Mr. Henry S. Priest for appellees.

Mr. Justice Day delivered the opinion of the court:

These cases were submitted together and involve the effect of certain ordinances of the city of St. Louis, which are alleged to be binding contracts, protected by the Federal Constitution.

A bill was filed in the circuit court of the United States for the eastern district of Missouri by the United Railways Company of St. Louis and the St. Louis Transit Company, the former being the lessor and the latter the lessee of a large system of street railways in the city of St. Louis. The bill seeks to enjoin the enforcement of a certain ordinance, No. 21,087, in the city of St. Louis, passed March 25, 1903, alleging violation of the contract clause of the Constitution and of rights secured by the 14th Amendment. The case was tried upon the bill, answer, replication, and an agreed statement of facts.

The complainants are the owners of certain rights granted by ordinances to a number of street railway companies in the city of St. Louis, the assignors of the complainants. These ordinances are set out in the record and are quite numerous. Some of them cover quite extended terms, running as long as forty and fifty years. They purport on their face to grant to the railway companies named in the ordinances, their licensees, successors, and assigns, rights in certain streets 'to operate, maintain, and construct,' 'to lay down, construct, operate, and maintain,''to reconstruct its tracks and maintain and operate its railway thereon.' The grants in these ordinances are in consideration of certain undertakings and obligations stated therein on behalf of the railway companies, which are thus epitomized, in the opinion of the learned judge in the case in the circuit court: (1) To commence and complete the work of laying down the tracks and installing the road within certain specified periods. (2) To grade the streets from curb to curb. (3) To construct and keep in repair that portion of the street lying between the tracks and 12 inches outside thereof. (4) To cause cars to be run day and night at certain intervals named in the ordinances. (5) To pay certain stipulated sums of money, or certain percentages of the gross earnings of the several companies, to the city each year during the continuance of the privileges specified in the contract.

At the time these ordinances were passed there was in force in the state of Missouri a certain provision of the state Constitution, namely:

'No law shall be passed by the general assembly granting the right to construct and operate a street railroad within any city, town, village, or on any public highway, without first acquiring the consent of the local authorities having control of the street or highway proposed to be occupied by such street railroad; and the franchises so granted shall not be transferred without similar assent first obtained.' [Art. 12, § 20.]

The city charter of St. Louis contains, among others, the following provisions:

Article 10.

Sec. 1. Authority of municipal assembly in reference to street railroads; may sell franchises or impose a per capita tax or a tax on gross receipts.—The municipal assembly shall have power by ordinance to determine all questions arising with reference to street railroads, in the corporate limits of the city, whether such questions may involve the construction of such street railroads, granting the right of way, or regulating and controlling them after their completion; and also shall have power to sell the franchise or right of way for such street railroads to the highest bidder, or, as a consideration therefor, to impose a per capita tax on the passengers transported, or an annual tax on the gross receipts of such railroad, or on each car, and no street railroad shall hereafter be incorporated or built in the city of St. Louis except according to the above and other conditions of this charter, and in such manner and to such extent as may be provided by ordinance.

There was also in force in the city charter of St. Louis, article 3, § 26, subd. 11, which empowers the city, through its mayor and municipal assembly:

'Eleventh.—To protect rights of city in corporations; grant, regulate, and repeal railway franchises; free passes on street railways prohibited.—To take all needful steps in and out of the state, to protect the rights of the city in any corporation in which the city may have acquired an interest; to have sole power and authority to grant to persons or corporations the right to construct railways in the city, subject to the right to amend, alter, or repeal any such grant, in whole or in part, and to regulate and control the same as to their fares, hours, and frequency of trips, and the repair of their tracks, and the kind of their rails and vehicles; but every right so granted shall cease, unless the work of construction shall be begun within one year from the granting of the right, and be continued to completion with all reasonable practical speed, and it shall be the cause of forfeiture of the rights and privileges derived from the city of any railroad company operating its road only within this city, which shall allow any person to ride or travel on its road gratuitously or for less than usual price of fare, unless such person be an officer or employee of such company.'

The 5th subdivision of § 26 of article 3, clause 5, confers upon the mayor and assembly the power to license, tax, and regulate certain occupations and kinds of business, vehicles, conveyances, etc., among others, street railway cars. As appears from the agreed statement of facts, at the time the ordinances granting rights to the street railways were passed there were sections of the municipal code of St. Louis (2134 et seq.) in force, requiring the street railway companies to pay to the city collector an annual license fee of $25 for each and every car used by them in transporting passengers for hire in the city. These sections were passed under the power conferred to license, tax, and regulate occupations, vehicles, and street railway cars.

The ordinance which is the subject-matter of this controversy is No. 21,087, purporting to impose a tax equal to one mill for each pay passenger on each car, and purporting to be an amendment of the sections of the municipal code fixing the license tax at $25 per car. It is stipulated in the agreed statement of facts that all the railway companies named in the complaint, including the United Railways Company and the St. Louis Transit Company, paid the annual license of $25 per car until the going into effect of ordinance 21,087.

This case was decided by the learned judge of the circuit court upon the theory that the power of the city to give its consent to the use of the streets for the purpose of constructing and operating railroads, and the power to license street railway cars, were both exercised in the special ordinances in question, and that, in fixing the compensation to be paid by the railway companies, an irrevocable contract was made which prevented the city, during the terms of the ordinances, from imposing any license fee or tax for the operation of the cars; for, says the learned judge:

'There is neither statutory command nor any perceptible reason why both these powers should not be exercised in one and the same ordinance, and such, in my opinion, is the obvious purpose of the original ordinances granted to complainants' assignors.

'The right 'to construct and operate' is conferred in terms admitting of no doubt. The license, which is essentially an occupation tax, is, in my opinion, also fixed in each of the ordinances. The several original ordinances or contracts clearly mean that the city exacted, amony other things, certain quarterly or yearly payments of money to be made to it by the railroad companies as a consideration for the grant by it of the right to occupy and use its streets for the purpose of laying down, maintaining, and operating lailroad tracks thereon. The law nowhere commands that the license fee, as authorized by the 5th subdivision in question, shall be for annual or other terminal occupation. And I perceive no reason why the city may not at the outset fix such a license for the full term of its grant. This is what I think it did in and by the terms and stipulations of the several ordinances in question.'

The theory, then, upon which the bill was framed and this case decided, was that the city, having once fixed a price for the use of its streets, which the railway companies had agreed to pay, there was no right to impose a license tax upon the railway companies under the ordinance of March 25, 1903, amending the municipal code in the manner already referred to. These sections of the municipal code, requiring the payment of the license fee, impose a tax, as the main purpose of their enactment is the raising of revenue. St. Louis v. Spiegel, 75 Mo. 145, 146.

The principles involved in this case have been the subject of frequent consideration in this court, and while it can be no longer doubted that a state or municipal corporation, acting under its authority, may deprive itself by contract of the power to exercise a right conferred by law to collect taxes or license fees, at the same time the principle has been established that such deprivation can only follow when the state or city has concluded itself by the use of clear and unequivocal terms. The existence of doubt in the interpretation of the alleged...

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