Piedmont Ry Co v. United States

Decision Date24 February 1930
Docket NumberNo. 164,164
Citation50 S.Ct. 192,74 L.Ed. 551,280 U.S. 469
PartiesPIEDMONT & N. RY. CO. et al. v. UNITED STATES et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. W. S. O'B. Robinson, Jr., of Charlotte, N. C., for appellant Piedmont & N. Ry. Co.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 470-471 intentionally omitted] Mr. John E. Benton, of Washington, D. C., for appellant National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners.

Mr. Daniel W. Knowlton, of Washington, D. C., for appellees the United States and Interstate Commerce Commission.

Mr. Sidney S. Alderman, of Washington, D. C., for appellees Southern Ry. Co. and others.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Paragraph 18 of section 1 of the Interstate Commerce Act, as amended by Transportation Act 1920, February 28, c. 91, § 402, 41 Stat. 456, 477, 478 (49 USCA § 1(18), prohibits any carrier by railroad subject to that act from undertaking any extension of its lines or construction of new lines, without first obtaining from the Interstate Commerce Commission a certificate of public necessity and convenience. Paragraphs 19 and 20 provide for applications for certificates and prescribe the procedure and mode of disposal. Paragraph 22 exempts from the scope of those provisions the construction of industrial and certain other tracks 'located wholly within one State, or of street, suburban, or interurban electric railways, which are not operated as a part or parts of a general steam railroad system of transportation.'

The Piedmont & Northern Railway, a carrier by railroad subject to the Interstate Commerce Act, operates in interstate commerce about 128 miles of line in North and South Carolina, using exclusively electric locomotives. It determined to extend its lines 53 miles on one route and 75 miles on another, in order to connect with several steam railroads; and, believing that the above provisions of that act were inapplicable, it intended to make the proposed extensions without securing from the Commission a certificate of public necessity and convenience. The Commission, learning informally of the project, advised the railway by letter that before it 'constructs any extensions to its line or issues any securities it will be expected to file appropriate applications for authority therefor under sections 1 and 20a (49 USCA § 1, 20a). The filing of such applications will, of course, be without prejudice to your right to assert that the Commission has no jurisdiction over your property in those respects and to adduce whatever evidence you may desire to support such contention.' The letter called attention to the following passage in Texas & Pacific Ry. Co. v. Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Ry Co., 270 U. S. 266, 272, 46 S. Ct. 263, 264, 70 L. Ed. 578:

'Whenever such an application is made, the Commission may pass incidentally upon the question whether what is called an extension is in act such; for if it proves to be only an industrial track, the Commission must decline, on that ground, to issue a certificate. A carrier desiring to construct new tracks does not, by making application to the Commission, necessarily admit that they constitute an extension. It may secure a determination of the question, without waiving any right, by asserting in the application that in its opinion a certificate is not required, because the construction involves only an industrial track.'

Upon receipt of this letter, the railway filed an application for a certificate of public necessity and convenience; and it asserted therein that the proposed extensions were parts of a single project undertaken prior to the effective date of paragraph 181 and that it was an interurban electric railway within the exemption of paragraph 22. It accordingly moved that its application be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. The Commission overruled the motion; took jurisdiction; and entered an order denying the application on its merits. Proposed Construction of Lines by Piedmont & Northern Ry. Co., 138 I. C. C. 363. This suit was then brought by the railway against the United States in the federal court for Western South Carolina, under the Urgent Deficiencies Act, October 22, 1913, c. 32, 38 Stat. 208 219, 220, U. S. C. tit. 28, § 47 (28 USCA § 47), and, as the bill states, also under 'the general equity jurisdiction' of the court. The bill charges that, if the order is not set aside, the railway 'will be prevented from constructing the new mileage'; and prays for 'a permanent injunction decreeing that the Commission was without jurisdiction of the application,' that the order 'taking jurisdiction of said application and denying the same, be set aside and annulled, and that the Commission be forever enjoined from taking any action or proceeding against your petitioner under said order.' The National Association of Railroad and Utility Commissioners intervened as plaintiff. The Interstate Commerce Commission, the Southern Railway, and other steam railroads intervened as defendants. The Commission moved to dismiss the bill for want of jurisdiction. The court, three judges sitting, denied the motion; and, the case being submitted on final hearing upon the pleadings and the record before the Commission, entered a decree dismissing the bill on the merits. (D. C.) 30 F.(2d) 421. A direct appeal to this Court was taken by both plaintiffs under section 238(4) of the Judicial Code, as amended by the Act of February 13, 1925, c. 229, § 1, 43 Stat. 936, 938, U. S. C. tit. 28, § 345 (28 USCA § 345(d).

Plaintiffs do not complain of the order's denial of a certificate of public necessity and convenience. They concede that no court has the power to compel the Commission to issue such a certificate, since no railroad subject to the provisions of the act has a right to extend its lines. Therefore, the order denying a certificate, being negative in substance as well as in form, infringed no right of the railway. Compare Procter & Gamble Co. v. United States, 225 U. S. 282, 32 S. Ct. 761, 56 L. Ed. 1091; Lehigh Valley R. R. Co. v United States, 243 U. S. 412, 37 S. Ct. 397, 61 L. Ed. 819; United States v. New River Co., 265 U. S. 533, 540, 44 S. Ct. 610, 68 L. Ed. 1165. The plaintiffs have also abandoned, in this Court, their contention that the proposed extensions are part of a project undertaken prior to the effective date of paragraph 18. Their sole contention is that the court below and the Commission erred in not holding that the railway is an interurban electric railway within the exemption of paragraph 22. The defendants renew their objections to the jurisdiction of the court.

We think that the defendants' objection is well taken. There is no allegation of fact in the bill, and no provision in the statute, which supports the charge that the order will prevent the railway from proceeding with the construction of the new mileage. The order is wholly unlike a decree which dismisses a bill in equity on the merits when it should have been dismissed for want of jurisdiction. Such a decree must be set aside because, otherwise, it might be held to operate as res judicata. Compare Swift & Co. v. United States, 276 U. S. 311, 325, 326, 48 S. Ct. 311, 72 L. Ed. 587; New Orleans v. Fisher, 180 U. S. 185, 196, 21 S. Ct. 347, 45 L. Ed. 485; Dowell v. Applegate, 152 U....

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