District of Columbia v. Woodbury

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation136 U.S. 450,34 L.Ed. 472,10 S.Ct. 990
Decision Date19 May 1890

136 U.S. 450
10 S.Ct. 990
34 L.Ed. 472
May 19, 1890.

H. E. Davis, for plaintiff in error.

James Coleman, S. Shellabarger, and J. M. Wilson, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice HARLAN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

Page 451

The question to be first considered is whether the District of Columbia is, under any circumstances, liable in damages for personal injuries resulting from the unsafe condition of the a venues, streets, and sidewalks in the city of Washington. The charge of the court below proceeded upon the ground that such liability existed. The District contends here, as it did at the trial, for the opposite view; and it insists that the question is not concluded by the decision in Barnes v. District of Columbia, 91 U. S. 540. The argument in support of this proposition assumes that the relations between the government of the District and the public have been so materially changed by legislation enacted since the Barnes Case that the principles therein announced have no application to the present case. This suggestion renders it necessary to ascertain precisely what was decided in the former case.

It arose under the act approved February 21, 1871, (16 St. p. 419, c. 62,) creating the 'District of Columbia' a body corporate for municipal purposes, with power to contract and be contracted with, to sue and be sued, to plead and be impleaded, to have a seal, and to exercise all other powers of a municipal corporation not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of the United States or with that act. Provision was made for the appointment by the president, with the consent of the senate, of a governor, secretary, board of health, board of public works, and a legislative assembly composed of two bodies, whose power of legislation extended to all rightful subjects of legislation within the District, con-

Page 452

sistent with the constitution of the United States and that act. The streets, avenues, alleys, and sewers of Washington, together with all other works intrusted to their charge by the legislative assembly or by congress, were placed under the entire control of the board of public works, with authority to make all regulations they deemed necessary for keeping them in repair. It was also required to disburse 'upon their warrant all moneys appropriated by the United States or the District of Columbia, or collected from property holders in pursuance of law, for the improvements of streets, avenues, alleys, and sewers, and roads and bridges,' and to 'assess, in such manner as shall be prescribed by law, upon the property adjoining, and to be specially benefited by the improvements authorized by law and made by them, a reasonable proportion of the cost of the improvement, not exceeding one-third of such cost, which sum shall be collected as all other taxes are collected.'

It was contended in the Barnes Case that the board of public works was not a department or subordinate agency of the District of Columbia, but a federal commission, having exclusive power to make such regulations as it deemed necessary for keeping in repair the streets, avenues, alleys, sewers, roads, and bridges committed to their control. This view was rejected by the court. Although that board was dependent upon both congress and the legislative assembly of the District, and was the hand and agent both of the United States and of the District, it was held to be the representative and a part of the municipal corporation created by the act of 1871, and that its proceedings and acts in repairing and improving public streets were the proceedings and acts of that corporation. The District was held liable for the injury there complained of, upon the principle, which the court declared to be sound, and supported by numerous and well-considered adjudications in this country and in England, that a municipal corporation, as distinguished from a corporation organized for private gain, is liable for injuries to individuals arising from negligence upon its part in the construction of works which it was authorized to construct and maintain. And it was ex-

Page 453

pressly declared that it was not of the slightest consequence, in principle, by what means the officers of the District were 'placed in their position, whether they are elected by the people of the municipality, or appointed by the president or a governor. The people are the recognized source of all authority, state and municipal; and to this authority it must come at last, whether immediately or by a circuitous process.' 91 U. S. 545.

Has there been any such change in the government established for this District as will take the present case out of the rule announced in the Barnes Case? In the revision of the statutes relating to the District, the clause of the act of 1871, declaring the District of Columbia (Rev. St. D. C. p. 2, § 2) to be a body corporate for municipal purposes, with power to contract, etc., was retained. By the act of June 20, 1874, for the government of the District, and for other purposes, (18 St. p. 116, c. 337,) previous statutes providing for the District a governor, secretary, legislative assembly, board of public works, and a delegate in congress were repealed, and all the power and authority then vested in the govern or and board of public works, except as limited by that act, were vested in a commission, composed of three persons, to be appointed by the president with the consent of the senate. But by the act of June 11, 1878, (20 St. p. 102, c. 180,) a permanent form of government for the District was established. It provided that 'the District of Columbia shall remain and continue a municipal corporation, as provided in section two of the Revised Statutes relating to said District,' and that the commissioners therein provided for should 'be deemed and taken as officers of such corporation.' Those commissioners, consisting of two persons, to be appointed by the president, with the consent of the senate, and an officer of the engineer corps, detailed for that purpose, were vested with all the powers, rights, duties, and privileges, and all the property, estate, and effects, then lawfully exercised by and vested in the commissioners of the District, including the power, among others, to apply the taxes or other revenues of the District to the payment of its current expenses, the support of the public schools, the fire

Page 454

department, and the police, but making no contract, nor incurring any obligation, other than such as were provided in that act, and should be approved by congress; to collect taxes theretofore lawfully assessed and due, or to become due, but without anticipation taxes by selling or hypothecating them; to abolish offices, consolidate two or more offices, reduce the number of employes, remove from office, and make appointments to any office under them authorized by law; and to erect, light, and maintain lamp-posts, with lamps, beyond the city limits. Sections 1-3.

It was made their duty to submit annually to the secretary of the treasury, for his examination and approval, a detailed statement 'of the work proposed to be underatken by them' during the then ensuing fiscal year, and the estimated cost thereof, as well as the cost of constructing, repairing, and maintaining all bridges authorized by law across the Potomac and other streams within the district, the cost of maintaining all public institutions of charity, reformatores, and prisons then belonging to, or supported in whole or in part by, the District, and the expenses of the Washington aqueduct and its appurtenances, together with an itemized statement and estimate of the amount necessary to defray the expenses of the District for the then ensuing fiscal year. These estimates i be came the duty of the secretary of the treasury to examine and approve or disapprove, or suggest such change in them as the public interest demanded, the result to be certified to the commissioners, who were required to transmit the same, with the original estimates, to congress. The act provided that, 'to the extent to which congress shall approve of said estimates, congress shall appropriate the amount of fifty per centum thereof; and the remaining fifty per centum of such approved estimates shall be levied and assessed upon the taxable property and privileges in said district other than the property of the United States and of the District of Columbia.' Section 3.

It also provides that when any repairs of streets, avenues, alleys, or sewer within the District are to be made, or when new pavements are to be substituted in place of those worn

Page 455

out, new ones laid, new streets opened, sewers built, or any work, the total cost of which shall exceed $1,000, the work shall be given out upon advertisement, the lowest responsible bid to be accepted by the commissioners, thought they have the right, in their discretion, to reject all proposals made. It further provides that the 'United States shall pay one-half of the cost of all work done under the provisions of this [fifth] section, except that done by the railway companies, which payment shall be credited as part of the fifty per centum which the United States contributes towards the expenses of the District of Columbia for that year; and all payments shall be made by the secretary of the treasury on the warrant or order of the commissioners of the District of Columbia, or a majority thereof, in such amounts and at such times as they may deem safe and proper, in view of the progress of the work.' The act places the police, schools, board of health, and sanitary inspectors of the District all under the charge and control of the commissioners.

We have made this extended analysis of the provisions of the act of 1878 because of the earnest contention of the counsel for the defendant that, while the District of Columbia is...

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