Landis v. North American Co Same v. American Water Works Electric Co

Decision Date07 December 1936
Docket NumberNos. 221 and 222,s. 221 and 222
Citation57 S.Ct. 163,299 U.S. 248,81 L.Ed. 153
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Homer S Cummings, Atty. Gen., Stanley F. Reed, Sol. Gen., of Washington, D.C., and Robert H. Jackson, Asst. Atty. Gen., for petitioners.

Mr. John C. Higgins, of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice CARDOZO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The controversy hinges upon the power of a court to stay proceedings in one suit until the decision of another, and upon the propriety of using such a power in a given situation.

Respondents, nonregistered holding companies, brought suit in the District Court for the District of Columbia to enjoin enforcement of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (chapter 687, 49 Stat. 803 (15 U.S.C.A. § 79 et seq.)) on the ground that the Act in its entirety is unconstitutional and void. The complaint in No. 221 (the suit by the North American Company) was filed November 26, 1935; the complaint in No. 222 (the suit by the American Water Works & Electric Company) was filed the next day. By concession the two plaintiffs are holding companies within the meaning of the Act, and must register thereunder if the Act is valid as to them. One plaintiff, the North American Company, is at the apex of a pyramid which includes subsidiary holding companies as well as subsidiary operating companies, these last being engaged as public utilities in supplying gas and electricity to consumers in different states. The other plaintiff, American Water Works & Electric Company, is at the apex of another pyramid including like subsidiaries. The defendants in both suits (petitioners in this court) are the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Attorney General of the United States, and the Postmaster General.

On November 26, 1935, the Commission filed a bill of complaint in the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York to compel other holding companies, members of a different public utility system, to register with the Commission in accordance with the statute. At the beginning, the defendants were the Electric Bond & Share Company, the parent holding company, and five intermediate holding company subsidiaries. Sixteen other holding company subsidiaries were later added as defendants with the Government's consent. All the twenty-two defendants, parties to that suit, appeared and answered the complaint. All joined in a cross-bill contesting the validity of the Act and praying a decree restraining its enforcement. To give opportunity for full relief, the present petitioners appeared as cross-defendants, answering the cross-bill and opposing an injunction.

On December 7, 1935, the Attorney General filed a notice of motion in behalf of the petitioners for a stay of proceedings in Nos. 221 and 222, pending at that time in the District of Columbia. The petitioners had not yet submitted their answer to the bills, but their position as supporters of the statute in its application to respondents was made abundantly apparent. By the notice of motion it was shown that other suits to restrain the enforcement of the Act had been filed by other plaintiffs in the District of Columbia, and many more in other districts. The Government professed its anxiety to secure an early determination of its rights, and to that end pledged itself to proceed with all due diligence to prosecute the suit which it had chosen as a test. There were representations that the trial of a multitude of suits would have a tendency 'to clog the courts, overtax the facilities of the Government, and make against that orderly and economical disposition of the controversy that is the Government's aim.' Accordingly the court was asked to stay proceedings in the suits at bar 'until the validity of said Act has been determined by the Supreme Court of the United States' in the Electric Bond & Share case, 'or until that case is otherwise terminated.' To that motion the plaintiffs filed an answer on December 12, 1935, contesting the power of the court to grant the requested stay, asserting that the questions to be passed upon in their suits were not identical with the questions presented in the test one, pointing out that the Act even if valid as applied to some companies, might be invalid as applied to others, and dwelling upon the loss that they were suffering day by day while the menace of the Act obstructed their business and cast a cloud on its legality.

Upon the argument of the motion the Attorney General and the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that until the validity of the Act had been determined by this court in a civil suit which would be diligently prosecuted, neither the Attorney General nor the Commission would seek to enforce the criminal penalties of the Act, and that even after such determination they would not seek to exact penalties for earlier offenses. Written notice to that effect was given to all prosecuting officers. At the same time the Postmaster General announced that even if he had authority, he would not exclude any company from using the mails because of any violation of the Act pending the judicial determination of its validity by this court. Also, the Commission issued a regulation permitting a holding company, when register- ing, to reserve any legal or constitutional right and to stipulate that its registration should be void and of no effect in the event that such a reservation should be adjudged invalid or ineffective. Finally, the Attorney General offered to submit to a temporary injunction restraining the enforcement of the Act until the Electric Bond & Share case should be determined by this court. On the other side, the plaintiffs offered to consolidate their cases and thus dispose of them as one. They also offered, as we were informed upon the argument, to select a group of suits, not more than three or four, to be tried at the same time, with the understanding that any others would then be held in abeyance. These offers were rejected, and the Government stood upon its motion.

How many suits for like relief were pending in the same and other districts was the subject of oral representations when the motion was submitted. By consent, however, an affidavit by the Attorney General was afterwards supplied with a stipulation of counsel supplementary thereto. The affidavit and stipulation were accepted by the Court, and give precision to representations that would otherwise be vague. From the affidavit it appeared that, in addition to the suits at bar, forty-seven suits had been brought in thirteen districts, five of them, afterwards reduced to four, in the District of Columbia, the others elsewhere. From the stipulation it appeared, however, that none of the cases in other districts would be heard or determined on the merits. The bills were to be dismissed or process was to be quashed in so far as relief was demanded against any officials who are parties to the present suits, and this for the reason that as to all such defendants the venue was improper. In a few suits there were to be decrees pro confesso against local officials who had been instructed by the Attorney General not to offer a defense. The number of pending suits was thus reduced to those in the District of Columbia, though there was a possibility, more or less uncertain, that there would be a renewal in that district of the suits begun elsewhere and discontinued or dismissed. Along with the affidavit and stipulation the Government submitted a copy of the complaint and the cross-bill in the suit against the Bond & Share Company.

Upon this showing the District Judge reached the conclusion that the motion should be granted, stating his reasons in an opinion. 'A decision,' he said, 'by the Supreme Court in the Electric Bond and Share case, even if it should not dispose of all the questions involved, would certainly narrow the issues in the pending cases and assist in the determination of the questions of law involved.' However, the granting of the motion would be conditioned upon diligent and active prosecution of the Government's suit. An order was made on January 9, 1936, staying all proceedings upon the terms and conditions stated in the opinion. From that order the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia allowed a special appeal, which was heard in April, 1936 (four judges sitting), and decided in June. There were three opinions: An opinion by Mr. Justice Van Orsdel, concurred in by the Chief Justice; a separate opinion by Mr. Justice Groner; and a dissenting opinion by Mr. Justice Stephens. 85 F. (2d) 398, 400. The first opinion states the question before the court to be whether or not the District Court had 'abused its discretionary power in the control of its docket.' Standing alone, this statement would seem to concede that there was power, the inquiry being merely whether the power had been discreetly exercised. The concession, if made, was speedily withdrawn. A few sentences later we are told that the power is confined to cases where the issues and the parties are the same. The separate opinion of Groner, J., treats the subject with greater flexibility. He suggests that after joinder of issue there may be a postponement of the trial if the court in the control of its own docket shall find that course expedient. He couples this with a statement that a stay so indefinite as the one before him would be too broad in any case. None the less, much latitude of judgment...

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