People of Puerto Rico v. Rubert Hermanos

Decision Date25 March 1940
Docket NumberNo. 582,582
Citation309 U.S. 543,84 L.Ed. 916,60 S.Ct. 699
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Wm. Cattron Rigby, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Melvin H. Siegel, of Washington, D.C., amicus curiae for the United States.

Messrs. Henri Brown, of San Juan, P.R., and George M. Wolfson, of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question here in controversy is a matter of great importance to Puerto Rico and involves the power of its legislature to enforce Congressional policies affecting the Island. We therefore brought the case here on a writ of certiorari, 309 U.S. 642, 60 S.Ct. 467, 84 L.Ed. —-, to review a decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. 106 F.2d 754. That court had reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, 53 P.R.R. 779 (Spanish edition) sustaining a proceeding in quo warranto brought against respondent.

The proceeding was initiated in the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico under jurisdiction conferred upon it by the local legislature. The substance of two measures, enacted in 1935, and set out below, authorized the Government of Puerto Rico to bring a quo warranto proceeding in its Supreme Court against any corporation violating federal law.1 Accordingly, the Attorney General of the Island brought the present suit against respondent, a corporation organized in 1927 under Puerto Rico's corporation law. The gravamen of the suit was alleged defiance by respondent of the Congressional restriction imposed upon 'every corporation authorized to engage in agriculture * * * to the ownership and control of not to exceed five hundred acres of land.' This restriction, according to the complaint, embodied 'the public policy of the People of Puerto Rico' first declared by Congress in its Joint Resolution of May 1, 1900, 31 Stat. 715, supplementing the Foraker Act of April 12, 1900, 31 Stat. 77.2 This limitation upon the corporate ownership of land was continued when Congress in 1917 revised the constitutional framework of Puerto Rico's government in what is the existing Organic Act, § 39 of the Act of March 2, 1917, 39 Stat. 951, 964, 48 U.S.C. § 752, 48 U.S.C.A. § 752.

The present controversy derives from the fact that Congress affixed no direct consequences to disobedience of its land policy for Puerto Rico. The main issue presented here is whether Puerto Rico's Legislative Assembly has power to graft such consequences upon the Con- gressional prohibition. This was the issue as the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico conceived it, and we are not disposed to deal with it differently. It was suggested by the dissenting judge in the Court of Appeals that the Supreme Court's judgment may be supported by construing the 1935 legislation as a means of enforcing the local land policy—identic, to be sure, with that declared by Congress-embodied in the 1911 corporation law of Puerto Rico. To do so, however, would take us into niceties of pleading and of local law which were not canvassed by the insular court. Such a course would be peculiarly gratuitous when the issue which the local court in fact decided is easily resolved.

In the setting of the traditional relation between the broad outlines designed by Congress for the government of territories and the powers of local legislatures to move freely within those outlines, the difficulties conjured up against the view taken by the Puerto Rican court rapidly evaporate. The objections urged against it illustrate vividly the power of subtle argument to give an appearance of difficulty to what is relatively simple. The breadth of local autonomy reposed by Congress in the Legislative Assembly was elucidated too recently and too thoroughly in Puerto Rico v. Shell Co., 302 U.S. 253, 58 S.Ct. 167, 82 L.Ed. 235, to call for repetition here. Suffice it to say that the opinion in that case underlined the fullness of scope which Congress gave to Puerto Rico when it provided by § 37 of the Organic Act of 1917 that 'the legislative authority shall extend to all matters of a legislative character not locally inapplicable * * *.' 39 Stat. 964, 48 U.S.C. § 821, 48 U.S.C.A. § 821. Drawing on the practice of Congress in its treatment of territories throughout our history, and assimilating that practice into the Puerto Rican situation, the Court concluded that 'The grant of legislative power in respect of local matters, contained in section 32 of the Foraker Act and continued in force by section 37 of the Organic Act of 1917 (48 U.S.C.A. §§ 774, 821), is as broad and comprehensive as language could make it.' 302 U.S. at page 261, 58 S.Ct. at page 171, 82 L.Ed. 235.

Surely nothing more immediately touches the local concern of Puerto Rico than legislation giving effect to the Congressional restriction on corporate land holdings. This policy was born of the special needs of a congested population largely dependent upon the land for its livelihood.3 It was enunciated as soon as Congress became responsible for the welfare of the Island's people, was retained against vigorous attempts to modify it,4 and was reaffirmed when Congress enlarged Puerto Rico's powers of self-government. Surely Congress meant its action to have significance beyond mere empty words. To treat the absence of a specific remedy for violation of the restriction as an implied bar against local enforcement measures is to impute to Congress a dog-in-the-manger attitude bordering on disingenuousness. We refuse to believe that Congress was bent on the elaborate futility of a brutum fulmen. What was said in another context, Texas & N.O.R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Ry. Clerks, 281 U.S. 548, 569, 50 S.Ct. 427, 433, 74 L.Ed. 1034, is apposite here: 'The definite prohibition which Congress inserted in the act can not therefore be overridden in the view that Congress intended it to be ignored. As the prohibition was appropriate to the aim of Congress, and is capable of enforcement, the conclusion must be that enforcement was contemplated.' The suggestion that enforcement might come only through quo warranto proceedings by the Attorney General of the United States is equally feckless.

A much more rational explanation, consistent with the organic relation between Congress and the local government, is at hand. As the ultimate legislative guardian of the Island's welfare, Congress confined the legislature's discretion within the limits of the five hundred-acre restriction. How this policy was to be realized was for Puerto Rico to say. 'Local authorities may ascertain facts and decide questions upon which depends appropriate exertion of the power much more conveniently than may the Congress.' Public Service Commission v. Havemeyer, 296 U.S. 506, 515, 516, 56 S.Ct. 360, 364, 80 L.Ed. 357.

It is admitted, as indeed in view of the Shell case it could not be denied, that the remedy here pursued would have been available to the Legislative Assembly if that body had adopted the Congressional policy in a substantive statute of its own. But respondent contends that the same result cannot be achieved by investing the insular courts with jurisdiction directly to enforce the Congressional policy. Such useless indirection is compelled neither by the Organic Act nor by any general consideration underlying the distribution of power between Congress and the insular legislature. So long as the Legislative Assembly acts within the framework which Congress has set up it merely avails itself of the power conferred in § 37 of the Organic Act. It has done so here.

There remains for consideration an objection based on § 256 of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 371, 28 U.S.C.A. § 371. That section vests in 'the courts of the United States * * * exclusive of the courts of the several States' jurisdiction of all suits 'for penalties and forfeitures incurred under the laws of the United States.' Whether a law passed by Congress is a 'law of the United States' depends on the meaning given to that phrase by its context. A law for the District of Columbia, though enacted by Congress, was held to be not a 'law of the United States' within the meaning of § 250 of the Judicial Code, 36 Stat. 1087, 1159. American Security Co. v. Dist. of Columbia, 224 U.S. 491, 32 S.Ct. 553, 56 L.Ed. 856. Likewise, we hold that § 39 of the Organic Act is not one of 'the laws of the United States' within the meaning of § 256. Section 39 is peculiarly concerned with local policy calling for local enforcement from which local courts should not be excluded by a statutory provision plainly designed for the protection of policies having general application throughout...

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