Public Service Commission of Utah v. Wycoff Co

Decision Date22 December 1952
Docket NumberNo. 44,44
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 237-238 intentionally omitted] Mr. Wood R. Worsley, Salt Lake City, Utah, for petitioners.

Mr. Harold S. Shertz, Philadelphia, Pa., Mr. Wayne C. Durham, Salt Lake City, Utah, for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

As this suit in equity was commenced in United States District Court it sought two kinds of specific relief: (1) a declaratory judgment that complainant's carriage of motion picture film and newsreels between points in Utah constitutes interstate commerce; (2) that the Public Service Commission of Utah and its members be forever enjoined from interfering with such transportation over routes authorized by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The complaint alleged a course of importing, processing and transporting picture film and newsreels to support the contention that carriage between points in Utah was so integrated with their interstate movement that the whole constituted interstate commerce. It averred that the Commission and its members 'threatened to and are attempting to stop and prevent plaintiff from transporting motion picture film and newsreel between points and places within the State of Utah, and they are thereby interfering with the conduct of interstate commerce by the plaintiff and imposing an undue burden upon interstate commerce,' and that unless the defendants are enjoined they will 'block, harass and prevent plaintiff in the transportation of said motion picture film and newsreels in Utah.'

The Commission and its members answered that respondent's transportation between points in Utah was nothing more than intrastate commerce. They specifically denied attempting, threatening, or intending to interfere with or burden interstate commerce.

The District Court, after trial, sustained the contention of the Commission and dismissed the complaint. The Court of Appeals considered only 'whether the intrastate transportations are nonetheless integral parts of in- terstate transportations.'1 It held the evidence to warrant an affirmative answer, reversed the judgment of the District Court and ordered further proceedings in conformity with that view. We granted certiorari,2 requesting counsel to discuss whether a single judge could hear and determine the case in view of 28 U.S.C. § 2281, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2281. That section provides that an injunction restraining enforcement of a state statute or the order of an administrative body thereunder 'shall not be granted' upon the ground of unconstitutionality unless the application is heard and determined by a district court of three judges as provided in 28 U.S.C. § 2284, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2284.

The respondent, which was plaintiff, contends that a three-judge court was not required, because the suit does not question constitutionality of any Utah statute nor the validity of any order of the State Commission. It says also that no injunction has been granted or even urged 'outside of the naked recitation in the prayer of the complaint.' It offered no evidence whatever of any past, pending or threatened action by the Utah Commission touching its business in any respect. The pleadings made that a clear-cut issue, which seems to have been completely ignored thereafter. The only issues defined on pretrial hearing was whether as matter of fact and of law the within-state transportation constituted interstate commerce. The trial court, however, made a general finding that no such interference had been made or threatened, which was not reversed or mentioned by the Court of Appeals.

For more reasons than one it is clear that this proceeding can not result in an injunction on constitutional grounds. In addition to defects that will appear in our discussion of declaratory relief, it is wanting in equity because there is no proof of any threatened or probable act of the defendants which might cause the irreparable injury essential to equitable relief by injunction.

The respondent appears to have abandoned the suit as one for injunction but seeks to support it as one for declaratory judgment, hoping thereby to avoid both the three-judge court requirement and the necessity for proof of threatened injury. Whether declaratory relief is appropriate under the circumstances of this case apparently was not considered by either of the courts below. But that inquiry is one which every grant of this remedy must survive.

The Declaratory Judgment Act of 1934, now 28 U.S.C. § 2201, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2201, styled 'creation of a remedy,' provides that in a case of actual controversy a competent court may 'declare the rights and other legal relations' of a party 'whether or not further relief is or could be sought.' This is an enabling Act, which confers a discretion on the courts rather than an absolute right upon the litigant.

Previous to its enactment there were responsible expressions of doubt that constitutional limitations on federal judicial power would permit any federal declaratory judgment procedure. Cf. Liberty Warehouse Co. v. Grannis, 273 U.S. 70, 47 S.Ct. 282, 71 L.Ed. 541; Willing v. Chicago Auditorium Ass'n, 277 U.S. 274, 48 S.Ct. 507, 72 L.Ed. 880; State of Arizona v. State of California, 283 U.S. 423, 51 S.Ct. 522, 75 L.Ed. 1154; Piedmont & N.R. Co. v. United States, 280 U.S. 469, 50 S.Ct. 192, 74 L.Ed. 551. Finally, as the practice extended in the states, we reviewed a declaratory judgment rendered by a state court and held that a controversy which would be justiciable in this Court if presented in a suit for injunction is not the less so because the relief was declaratory. Nashville, C. & St. L.R. Co. v. Wallace, 288 U.S. 249, 53 S.Ct. 345, 77 L.Ed. 730. Encouraged by this and guided by the experience of the thirty-four states that had enacted such laws, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended an adaptation of the principle to federal practice. Its enabling clause was narrower than that of the Uniform Act adopted in 1921 by the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, which gave comprehensive power to declare rights, status and other legal relations. The Federal Act omits status and limits the declaration to cases of actual controversy.3

This Act was adjudged constitutional only by interpreting it to confine the declaratory remedy within conventional 'case or controversy' limits. In Ashwander v. Tenessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 325, 56 S.Ct. 466, 473, 80 L.Ed. 688, the Court said, 'The Act of June 14, 1934, providing for declaratory judgments, does not attempt to change the essential requisites for the exercise of judicial power' which still was to be tested by such established principles as that 'The judicial power does not extend to * * * abstract questions' and that 'Claims based merely upon 'assumed potential invasions' of rights are not enough to warrant judicial intervention.'

In Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 57 S.Ct. 461, 463, 81 L.Ed. 617, Mr. Chief Justice Hughes used the whole catalogue of familiar phrases to define and delimit the measure of this new remedy. If its metes and bounds are not clearly marked, it is because his available verbal markers are themselves elastic, inconstant and imprecise. It applies, he points out, only to 'cases and controversies in the constitutional sense' of a nature 'consonant with the exercise of the judicial function' and 'appropriate for judicial determination.' Each must present a 'justiciable controversy' as distinguished from 'a difference or dispute of a hypothetical or abstract character * * *. The controversy must be definite and concrete, touching the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests. * * * It must be a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts.' The relief is available only for a 'concrete case admitting of an immediate and definite determination of the legal rights of the parties.'

Other sources have stated relevant limitations. The Senate Judiciary Committee report regarded the 1,200 American decisions theretofore rendered on the subject as establishing that 'the issue must be real, the question practical and not academic and the decision must finally settle and determine the controversy.'4 Indeed the Uniform Act, unlike the Federal Act, expressly declares the discretion of the Court to refuse a decree that would not 'terminate the uncertainty or controversy giving rise to the proceeding.' In recommending Rule 57 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.A., in order to provide procedures for the declaratory decree, the Committee noted 'A declaration may not be rendered if a special statutory proceeding has been provided for the adjudication of some special type of case. * * *'5

But when all of the axioms have been exhausted and all words of definition have been spent, the propriety of declaratory relief in a particular case will depend upon a circumspect sense of its fitness informed by the teachings and experience concerning the functions and extent of federal judicial power. While the courts should not be reluctant or niggardly in granting this relief in the cases for which it was designed, they must be alert to avoid imposition upon their jurisdiction through obtaining futile or premature interventions, especially in the field of public law. A maximum of caution is necessary in the type of litigation that we have here, where a ruling is sought that would reach far beyond the particular case. Such differ- ences of opinion or conflicts of interest must be 'ripe for determination' as controversies over legal rights. The disagreement must not be nebulous or contingent but must have taken on fixed and final shape so that a court can see what legal issues it is deciding,...

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