Great Northern Ry Co v. State of Washington, No. 20

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtROBERTS
Citation300 U.S. 154,57 S.Ct. 397,81 L.Ed. 573
Docket NumberNo. 20
Decision Date01 February 1937
PartiesGREAT NORTHERN RY. CO. v. STATE OF WASHINGTON. *

300 U.S. 154
57 S.Ct. 397
81 L.Ed. 573
GREAT NORTHERN RY. CO.

v.

STATE OF WASHINGTON.*

No. 20.
Argued Dec. 7, 8, 1936.
Decided Feb. 1, 1937.

Appeal from the Supreme Court of the State of Washington.

Page 155

Messrs. Thomas Balmer and L. B. da Ponte, both of Seattle, Wash., and F. G. Dorety, of St. Paul, Minn., for appellant.

George G. Hannan, of Olympia, Wash., for appellee.

Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal from a judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington1 in an action brought by the ap-

Page 156

pellant to recover fees for the years 1929—1933 paid under protest to the State Department of Public Works. The relevant statutory provisions are:2

'Section 1. That hereafter every person, firm or corporation engaged in business as a public utility and subject to regulation as to rates and charges by the department of public works, except auto transportation companies and steamboat companies holding certificates under chapter 248 of the Laws of 1927, shall, on or before the first day of April of each year, file with the department of public works a statement on oath showing its gross operating revenue for the preceding calendar year or portion thereof and pay to the department of public works a fee of 1/10 of one per cent of such gross operating revenue: Provided, That the fee so paid shall in no case be less than ten dollars.'

'Sec. 2. All sums collected by the director of public works under the provisions of this act shall within thirty days after their receipt be paid to the state treasurer, and by him deposited in a fund to be known as the public service revolving fund.'

The Supreme Court of the State has defined the exaction as a regulatory or inspection fee, and has declared that the fund created by the sums collected must be used solely for administering the State public service commission law. 3

The complaint4 alleges that the Department of Public Works exercises jurisdiction and supervision over sundry

Page 157

public utilities, including common carriers by rail, electric, and street railways, gas, electrical and water companies, telegraph and telephone companies, wharfingers, warehousemen, and carriers by water, engages in many activities disconnected from, and unrelated to, the inspection and supervision of rail carriers, and has a variety of duties in the enforcement of the State's police power. The complaint affirms that the fee is not based upon or restricted to the cost of legitimate regulation or supervision but is used to defray the costs of other activities in connection with railroads and also of supervising and inspecting unrelated public utilities and of performing other duties the expense of which cannot legitimately be imposed upon carriers by rail; that the fee is grossly in excess of the reasonable cost of inspection and regulation of railroads; that, to January 1, 1933, there had accumulated from the fees collected more than $250,000 in excess of the amount expended by the department in the discharge of all its duties; that the statute is in truth a revenue measure; that the State taxes plaintiff's property and other like property on an ad valorem basis. The complaint charges that the fee is a burden on, and a regulation of, interstate commerce in violation of article 1, section 8 of the Constitution; is so arbitrary, excessive, discriminatory, and unequal as to deny the plaintiff equal protection of the laws and to deprive it of property without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The answer admits plaintiff's payment under protest; admits that the Department of Public Works exercises jurisdiction and supervision over many classes of public utilites, including common carriers, and that the plaintiff's property within the State is assessed on an ad valorem basis for taxes like other property; admits plaintiff's capacity to sue; but denies substantially all other allegations of the complaint.

Page 158

The case was tried without a jury. The evidence largely consisted of the annual reports of the department. By the uncontradicted evidence and by the relevant statutes the following facts were established. The department has jurisdiction of various classes of public utilities, including railroads, electric and street railways, gas, electric and water companies, telegraph and telephone companies, wharfingers, warehousemen, and carriers by water, in respect of which it exercises many regulatory and supervisory duties. As respects railroads, the department constantly exercises functions unrelated to inspection and supervision, including the statutory duties of taking part in litigation before the Interstate Commerce Commission affecting the citizens of the State, and of acting judicially in decreeing refunds of overcharges. These functions, unrelated to the inspection and regulation of railroads, entail large expense. Between 1929 and 1933 the legislature made no appropriation from the State's general fund for the expenses of the department's activities, all being paid indiscriminately out of the department's fund derived from the fees collected from businesses subject to its jurisdiction. During this period the surplus accumulated from such receipts was $224,193.95, which was expended in 1934 in carrying on investigations of, and litigation with, public utility corporations other than railroads. No separate accounts are kept, or required by law to be kept, with respect to the expense of these various activities, and it is impossible to determine from the records and accounts of the department the expense of inspecting and regulating railroads separate and apart from the expense of regulating other utilities or other functions of the department.

The plaintiff called the department's auditor who testified that the charge of one-tenth of one per cent of gross income collected from utilities goes to build up a fund

Page 159

from which all the department's expenses are paid; that he had figures classifying the expenditures according to the various kinds of utilities with which the department is concerned. These calculations he had made for himself, there being no duty under the law to keep accounts on this basis. He testified that, in computing the expenditures in connection with railroads, he lumped them as railroad charges and made no separation of the costs of inspection and regulation, the costs of rate hearings, and the costs of reparation proceedings, although the evidence establishes that many of the railroad charges had to do with reparation cases and litigation before the Interstate Commerce Commission. At the close of plaintiff's case, the defendant recalled the auditor as its own witness. He testified that the disbursements chargeable to the railroads for the period 1929 to 1933, inclusive, exceeded the receipts from railroads in the same period by $37,833. He did not, however, qualify what he had previously stated, that, in making up these figures, he had lumped all railroad charges, whether for inspection and regulation or interstate commerce cases or reparation cases. Upon cross-examination it developed that the figures he submitted were not official, and, so far as they covered salary items, had been made up from slips which the various employes, at his request, had turned in monthly allocating the time each employe spent in the various branches of the work, and the witness had no personal knowledge of the accuracy of these slips. Plaintiff objected to the testimony and moved to strike it on the ground that it was hearsay but the court let it stand, subject to the objection. A judgment awarded the plaintiff by the trial court was reversed by the Supreme Court.

The principles governing decision have repeatedly been announced and were not questioned below. In the exercise of its police power the state may provide for the supervision and regulation of public utilities, such as rail

Page 160

roads; may delegate the duty to an officer or commission; and may exact the reasonable cost of such supervision and regulation from the utilities concerned and allocate the exaction amongst the members of the affected class without violating the rule of equality imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment.5 The supervision and regulation of the local structures and activities of a corporation engaged in interstate commerce, and the imposition of the reasonable expense thereof upon such corporation, is not a burden upon, or regulation of, interstate commerce in violation of the commerce clause of the Constitution.6 A law exhibiting the intent to impose a compensatory fee for such a legitimate purpose is prima facie reasonable.7 If the exaction be so unreasonable and disproportionate to the service as to impugn the good faith of the law8 it cannot stand either under the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment.9 The State is not bound to adjust the charge after the fact, but may, in anticipation, fix what the legislature deems to be a fair fee for the expected service, the presumption being that if, in practice, the sum charged appears inordinate the legislative body will reduce it in the light of experience.10 Such a statute may, in spite of the presumption of validity, show on its

Page 161

face that some part of the exaction is to be used for a purpose other than the legitimate one of supervision and regulation and may, for that reason, be void.11 And a statute fair upon its face may be shown to be void and unenforceable on account of its actual operation.12 If the exaction be clearly excessive it is bad in toto and the state cannot collect any part of it.13

The contention is that the challenged statute is void on its face since it discloses that the fee charged the appellant is not imposed for, or limited by, the reasonable cost of supervision or regulation of its business; and, if this is not so, the case made in respect of the act's operation cast on the appellee the burden of...

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35 practice notes
  • Franks & Son, Inc. v. State, No. 65255-4
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • 12 Noviembre 1998
    ...1003 (1959). Likewise, a state may impose a fee to offset the appropriate costs of regulation. See, e.g., Great N. Ry. Co. v. Washington, 300 U.S. 154, 160, 57 S.Ct. 397, 81 L.Ed. 573 (1937); Sprout v. City of South Bend, 277 U.S. 163, 169, 48 S.Ct. 502, 72 L.Ed. 833 (1928). Indeed, even in......
  • Clark v. Paul Gray, No. 534
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 17 Abril 1939
    ...757, 80 L.Ed. 1245; Ingels v. Morf, supra, 300 U.S. page 296, 57 S.Ct. page 442, 81 L.Ed. 653; Great Northern Railway Co. v. Washington, 300 U.S. 154, 57 S.Ct. 397, 81 L.Ed. 573, is not to the contrary. Appellants, without abandoning their position that the burden of proof rests on appellee......
  • Pac. Gas & Elec. Co. v. Pub. Utilities Comm'n, A142127
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • 16 Junio 2015
    ...787, 612 P.2d 877.)Without question, the PUC operates pursuant to the state's police power. (E.g., Gt. Northern Ry. v. Washington (1937) 300 U.S. 154, 159, 57 S.Ct. 397, 81 L.Ed. 573 ; Sutter Butte Canal Co. v. R.R. Comm'n. (1929) 279 U.S. 125, 139, 49 S.Ct. 325, 73 L.Ed. 637 ; Pacific Tel.......
  • Paul Gray, Inc. v. Ingels, Eq. 1203-C.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • 9 Julio 1938
    ...of the law it cannot stand either under the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment." Great Northern Railway Co. v. Washington, 300 U.S. 154, 160, 57 S.Ct. 397, 400, 81 L.Ed. The permanent injunction is granted. YANKWICH, District Judge (dissenting). I dissent. The California Carav......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
37 cases
  • Paul Gray, Inc. v. Ingels, Eq. 1203-C.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • 9 Julio 1938
    ...faith of the law it cannot stand either under the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment." Great Northern Railway Co. v. Washington, 300 U.S. 154, 160, 57 S.Ct. 397, 400, 81 L.Ed. The permanent injunction is granted. YANKWICH, District Judge (dissenting). I dissent. The California Cara......
  • Baltimore Gas and Elec. Co. v. Heintz, Nos. 84-1308
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • 2 Mayo 1985
    ...structure of public utilities, and this authority has been recognized as such by the Supreme Court. Great Northern Ry. Co. v. Washington, 300 U.S. 154, 160, 57 S.Ct. 397, 400, 81 L.Ed. 573 (1937). The potential for abuse of public service companies, which are only "legal" monopolies, are fa......
  • Franks & Son, Inc. v. State, No. 65255-4
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • 12 Noviembre 1998
    ...1003 (1959). Likewise, a state may impose a fee to offset the appropriate costs of regulation. See, e.g., Great N. Ry. Co. v. Washington, 300 U.S. 154, 160, 57 S.Ct. 397, 81 L.Ed. 573 (1937); Sprout v. City of South Bend, 277 U.S. 163, 169, 48 S.Ct. 502, 72 L.Ed. 833 (1928). Indeed, even in......
  • Pac. Gas & Elec. Co. v. Pub. Utilities Comm'n, A142127
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • 16 Junio 2015
    ...787, 612 P.2d 877.)Without question, the PUC operates pursuant to the state's police power. (E.g., Gt. Northern Ry. v. Washington (1937) 300 U.S. 154, 159, 57 S.Ct. 397, 81 L.Ed. 573 ; Sutter Butte Canal Co. v. R.R. Comm'n. (1929) 279 U.S. 125, 139, 49 S.Ct. 325, 73 L.Ed. 637 ; Pacific Tel.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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