Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Knoxville v. Knoxville Water Company

Decision Date04 January 1909
Docket NumberNo. 17,17
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. G. W. Pickle, W. R. Turner, W. T. Kennerly, and J. Pike Powers, Jr., for appellant.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 2-3 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Joshua W. Caldwell, R. E. L. Mountcastle, Charles T. Cates, Jr., and S. G. Shields for appellee.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 4-6 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Moody delivered the opinion of the court:

This is an appeal by the city of Knoxville from a decree of the circuit court of the United States for the eastern district of Tennessee. The appellee is a public service corporation, chartered for, and engaged in, the business of supplying that city and its inhabitants with water for domestic and other uses. The cause in which the decree was rendered is a suit in equity which was brought by the company on December 7, 1901, against the city to restrain the enforcement of a city ordinance fixing in detail the maximum rates to be charged by the company. This ordinance was enacted on March 30, 1901. The bill contained many allegations, which have become immaterial by the decision of this court in Knoxville Water Co. v. Knoxville, 189 U. S. 434, 47 L. ed. 887, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 531, in which the validity of the ordinance was sustained, except so far as it might confiscate the property of the company by fixing rates so law as to have that effect. The latter contention alone was left open to the company, and to it the remainder of the bill is mainly directed. The allegations in that regard are, that the rates fixed by the ordinance were so low that they denied to the company a reasonable return upon the property employed in the business, and thereby took it for public use without compensation, in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. After answer by the respondent and replication by the complainant the cause was referred to a special master, whose report was confirmed by the court. The master found and reported that the value of the plant and property employed in the business at the date of the passage of the ordinance was $608,427.95; that the gross income from the company's business was $88,481.39, and that the operating expenses were $34,750.91. The figures of income and expense are those of the fiscal year ending March 31, 1901, and the valuation was made as of that date. The master found and reported that the diminution of income which would have resulted from the enforcement of the ordinance during that fiscal year was $17,623.64, and that the gross income would have been reduced thereby to $70,857.75, leaving a net income of $36,106.84. This net income was less than 6 per cent on the valuation. In the opinion of the master 8 per cent, which included 2 per cent to provide for depreciation, was the minimum net return which the company was entitled to earn. The judge of the circuit court, in his opinion confirming the master's report, adopted the master's valuation of the whole plant and property at $608,427.95 (although he held that it ought to be increased by about $3,000), and the master's finding that the gross income was $88,481.39; that the expenses were $34,750.91; that the effect of the reduction made by the ordinance would be to lessen the gross income by $17,623.64, and that therefore the net income under the ordinance would be $36,106.84, or about $400 less than 6 per cent on the valuation. Upon these assumptions of fact as to its effect the judge regarded the ordinance as confiscatory and issued a permanent injunction against its enforcement.

At the threshold of the consideration of the case the attitude of this court to the facts found below should be defined. Here are findings of fact by a master, confirmed by the court. The company contends that, under these circumstances, the findings are conclusive in this court, unless they are without support in the evidence, or were made under the influence of er- roneous views of law. We need not stop to consider what the effect of such findings would be in an ordinary suit in equity. The purpose of this suit is to arrest the operation of a law on the ground that it is void and of no effect. It happens that in this particular case it is not an act of the legislature that is attacked, but an ordinance of a municipality. Nevertheless the function of ratemaking is purely legislative in its character, and this is true, whether it is exercised directly by the legislature itself or by some subordinate or administrative body, to whom the power of fixing rates in detail has been delegated. The completed act derives its authority from the legislature and must be regarded as an exercise of the legislative power. Prentis v. Southern R. Co. 211 U. S. 210, 53 L. ed. ——, 29 Sup. Ct. Rep. 67; Honolulu Rapid Transit & Land Co. v. Hawaii, 211 U. S. 282, 53 L. ed. ——, 29 Sup. Ct. Rep. 55. There can be at this day no doubt, on the one hand, that the courts, on constitutional grounds, may exercise the power of refusing to enforce legislation, nor, on the other hand, that that power ought to be exercised only in the clearest cases. The constitutional invalidity should be manifest, and where that invalidity rests upon disputed questions of fact, the invalidating facts must be proved to the satisfaction of the court. In view of the character of the judicial power invoked in such cases it is not tolerable that its exercise should rest securely upon the findings of a master, even though they be confirmed by the trial court. The power is best safeguarded against abuse by preserving to this court complete freedom in dealing with the facts of each case. Nothing less than this is demanded by the respect due from the judicial to the legislative authority. It must not be understood that the findings of a master, confirmed by the trial court, are without weight, or that they will not, as a practical question, sometimes be regarded as conclusive. All that is intended to be said is, that in cases of this character this court will not fetter its discretion or judgment by any artificial rules as to the weight of the master's findings, however useful and well settled these rules may be in ordinary litigation. We approach the discussion of the facts in this spirit.

The first fact essential to the conclusion of the court below is the valuation of the property devoted to the public uses, upon which the company is entitled to earn a return. That valuation ($608,000) must now be considered. It was made up by adding to the appraisement, in minute detail of all the tangible property, the sum of $10,000 for 'organization, promotion, etc.,' and $60,000 for 'going concern.' The latter sum we understand to be an expression of the added value of the plant as a whole over the sum of the values of its component parts, which is attached to it because it is in active and successful operation and earning a return. We express no opinion as to the propriety of including these two items in the valuation of the plant, for the purpose for which it is valued in this case, but leave that question to be considered when it necessarily arises. We assume, without deciding, that these items were properly added in this case. The value of the tangible property found by the master is, of course, $608,000 lessened by $70,000, the value attributed to the intangible property, making $538,000. This valuation was determined by the master by ascertaining what it would cost, at the date of the ordinance, to reproduce the existing plant as a new plant. The cost of reproduction is one way of ascertaining the present value of a plant like that of a water company, but that test would lead to obviously incorrect results if the cost of reproduction is not diminished by the depreciation which has come from age and use. The company contends that the master, in fixing upon the valuation of the tangible property, did make an allowance for depreciation, but we are unable to agree to this. The master no-where says that he made allowance for depreciation, and the language of his report is inconsistent with such a reduction. The figures which he adopts are those of a 'fair contractor's price.' The basis of his calculation was the testimony of an opinion witness called by the company. That witness submitted a table which avowedly showed the cost of reproduction, without allowance for depreciation. The values testified to by him were adopted by the master in the great majority of cases. The witness's valuation of the tangible property was somewhat reduced by the master, but the reductions were not based upon the theory of depreciation, but upon a difference of opinion as to the reproduction cost.

The cost of reproduction is not always a fair measure of the present value of a plant which has been in use for many years. The items composing the plant depreciate in value from year to year in a varying degree. Some pieces of property, like real estate for instance, depreciate not at all, and sometimes, on the other hand, appreciate in value. But the reservoirs, the mains, the service pipes, structures upon real estate, standpipes, pumps, boilers, meters, tools and appliances of every kind begin to depreciate with more or less rapidity from the moment of their first use. It is not easy to fix at any given time the amount of depreciation of a plant whose component parts are of different ages, with different expectations of life. But it is clear that some substantial allowance for depreciation ought to have been made in this case. The officers of the company, alio intuitu, estimated what they called 'incomplete depreciation' of this plant (which we understand to be the depreciation of the surviving parts of it still in use) at $77,000, which is 14 per cent of the master's appraisement of the tangible property. A witness called by the city placed the reproduction value of...

To continue reading

Request your trial
353 cases
  • McGrew v. Missouri Pac. Ry. Co.
    • United States
    • Missouri Supreme Court
    • June 28, 1910
    ...48 L. Ed. 406; Ex parte Young, 209 U. S. 123, 28 Sup. Ct. 441, 52 L. Ed. 714, 13 L. R. A. (N. S.) 932; Knoxville v. Knoxville Water Co., 212 U. S. 1, 29 Sup. Ct. 148, 53 L. Ed. 371; Willcox v. Consolidated Gas Co., 212 U. S. 19, 29 Sup. Ct. 192, 53 L. Ed. In all of those cases the plenary p......
  • Hansen v. City of San Buenaventura
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • April 8, 1985
    ...with a rate of return. However, it is elementary that assets must be subject to depreciation. (Knoxville v. Knoxville Water Co. (1908) 212 U.S. 1, 13-14, 29 S.Ct. 148, 152, 53 L.Ed. 371; Contra Costa Water Co. v. Oakland, Etc. (1911) 159 Cal. 323, 335, 113 P. 668; Miller v. Railroad Commiss......
  • Southern Utilities Co. v. City of Palatka
    • United States
    • Florida Supreme Court
    • December 21, 1923
    ... ... of Palatka against the Southern Utilities Company ... From a decree for plaintiff, defendant ... v. Tampa Water Works Co., 45 Fla. 600, 34 So. 631; ... Tampa ... 196, 192 P ... 224; Knoxville Gas Co. v. City of Knoxville (C. C ... A.) 261 ... ...
  • Utah Power & Light Co. v. Public Service Commission
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • October 10, 1944
    ... ... Company against Public Service Commission of Utah and ... G. Howell, all ... of Salt Lake City (S. I. Barber and Reid & Priest, all of New ... Seven ... years later in Spring Valley Water-Works v ... Schottler , 110 U.S. 347, 354, 4 ... the court in City of Knoxville v. Knoxville ... Water Co. , 212 U.S. 1, 29 ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Recent Tendencies in Valuations for Rate-Making Purposes
    • United States
    • ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, The No. 53-1, May 1914
    • May 1, 1914
    ...cost of reproduction new the extent of existing depreciationshould be shown and deducted, thus approving the rule in the Knox- ville case, 212 U.S. 1: The master allowed the cost of reproduction new without deduction depreciation. It was not denied that there was depreciation in fact.....Bu......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT