Railroad Retirement Board v. Alton Co

Decision Date06 May 1935
Docket NumberNo. 566,566
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 330-334 intentionally omitted] The Attorney General, and Messrs. Harold M. Stephens, Asst. Atty. Gen., and Harry Shulman, of New Haven, Conn., for petitioners.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 334-340 intentionally omitted]

Page 340

Messrs. Jacob Aronson, of New York City, and Emmett E. McInnis, of Chicago, Ill., for respondents.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 340-344 intentionally omitted]

Page 344

Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondents, comprising 134 class I railroads, two express companies, and the Pullman Company, brought this suit in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, asserting the unconstitutionality of the Railroad Retirement Act1 and praying an injunction against its enforcement. From a decree granting the relief sought, an appeal was perfected to the Court of Appeals. Before hearing in that tribunal, the petitioners applied for a writ of certiorari, representing that no serious or difficult questions of fact were involved, and urging the importance of an early and final decision of the controversy. In the exercise of power conferred by statute,2 we issued the writ.3

The act establishes a compulsory retirement and pension system for all carriers subject to the Interstate Commerce Act (49 USCA § 1 et seq.). There is provision for the creation of a fund to be deposited in the United States Treasury (sections 5, 8 (45 USCA §§ 205, 208)) and administered by a Board denominated an independent agency in the executive branch of the government (section 9 (45 USCA § 209)). The retirement fund for payment of these pensions and for the expenses of administration of the system will arise from compulsory contributions from present and future employees and the carriers. The sums payable by the employees are to be percentages of their current compensation, and those by each carrier double the total payable by its employees. The Board is to determine from

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time to time what percentage is required to provide the necessary funds, but, until that body otherwise determines, the employee contribution is to be 2 per cent. of compensation (section 5 (45 USCA § 205)). Out of this fund annuities are to be paid to beneficiaries.

The classes of persons eligible for such annuities are (1) employees of any carrier on the date of passage of the act; (2) those who subsequently become employees of any carrier; (3) those who within one year prior to the date of enactment were in the service of any carrier. Section 1(b) of the act, 45 USCA § 201(b).

To every person in any of the three categories an annuity becomes payable (a) when he reaches the age of 65 years, whether then in carrier service or not (section 3 (45 USCA § 203)); if still in such service he and his employer may agree that he shall remain for successive periods of one year until he attains 70, at which time he must retire (section 4 (45 USCA § 204)); (b) at the option of the employee, at any time between the ages of 51 and 65, if he has served a total of 30 years in the employ of one or more carriers, whether continuously or not (section 3, and section 1(f) of the act, 45 USCA §§ 201(f), 203). The compulsory retirement provision is not applicable to those in official positions until five years after the effective date of the act (section 4).

The annuity is payable monthly (section 1(d) of the act, 45 USCA § 201(d). The amount is ascertained by multiplying the number of years of service, not exceeding 30, before as well as subsequent to the date the Act was adopted, whether for a single carrier or a number of carriers, and whether continuous or not, by graduated percentages of the employee's average monthly compensation (excluding all over $300). If one who has completed 30 years of service elects to retire before attaining the age of 65 years, the annuity is reduced by one-fifteenth for each year he lacks of that age, unless the retirement is due to physical or mental disability (section 3).

Upon the death of an employee, before or after retirement, his estate is to be repaid all that he has contributed

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to the fund, with 3 per cent. interest compounded annually, less any annuity payments received by him (section 3).

The Supreme Court of the District of Columbia declared the establishment of such a system within the competence of Congress, but though several inseparable features of the act transcended the legislative power to regulate interstate commerce, and required a holding that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety. Our duty, like that of the court below, is fairly to construe the powers of Congress, and to ascertain whether or not the enactment falls within them, uninfluenced by predilection for or against the policy disclosed in the legislation. The fact that the compulsory scheme is novel is, of course, no evidence of unconstitutionality. Even should we consider the act unwise and prejudicial to both public and private interest, if it be fairly within delegated power, our obligation is to sustain it. On the other hand, though we should think the measure embodies a valuable social plan and be in entire sympathy with its purpose and intended results, if the provisions go beyond the boundaries of constitutional power we must so declare.

The admitted fact that many railroads have voluntarily adopted pension plans does not aid materially in determining the authority of Congress to compel conformance to the one embodied in the Railroad Retirement Act, nor does the establishment of compulsory retirement plans in European countries, to which petitioners refer, for in many of these railroads are operated under government ownership, and none has a constitutional system comparable to ours.

The federal government is one of enumerated powers; those not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people. The Constitution is not a statute, but the supreme law of the land to which all

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statutes must conform, and the powers conferred upon the federal government are to be reasonably and fairly construed, with a view to effectuating their purposes. But recognition of this principle cannot justify attempted exercise of a power clearly beyond the true purpose of the grant. All agree that the pertinent provision of the Constitution is article 1, § 8, cl. 3, which confers power on the Congress 'to regulate Commerce * * * among the several States; * * *' and that this power must be exercised in subjection to the guarantee of due process of law found in the Fifth Amendment.4

The petitioners assert that the questioned act, fairly considered, is a proper and necessary regulation of interstate commerce; its various provisions have reasonable relation to the main and controlling purposes of the enactment, the promotion of efficiency, economy, and safety; consequently it falls within the power conferred by the commerce clause and does not offend the principle of due process. The respondents insist that numerous features of the act contravene the due process guaranty, and further that the requirement of pensions for employees of railroads is not a regulation of interstate commerce within the meaning of the Constitution. These conflicting views open two fields of inquiry which to some extent overlap.5 If we assume that under the power to

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regulate commerce between the states Congress may require the carriage to make some provision for retiring and pensioning their employees, then the contention that various provisions of the act are arbitrary and unreasonable and bear no proper relation to that end must be considered. If any are found which deprive the railroads of their property without due process, we must determine whether the remainder may nevertheless stand. Broadly, the record presents the question whether a statutory requirement that retired employees shall be paid pensions is regulation of commerce between the states within article 1, § 8.

1. We first consider the provisions affecting former employees. The act makes eligible for pensions all who were in carrier service within one year prior to its passage, irrespective of any future re-employment. About 146,000 persons fall within this class, which, as found below, includes those who have been discharged for cause, who have been retired, who have resigned to take other gainful employment, who have been discharged because their positions were abolished, who were temporarily employed, or who left the service for other reasons. These persons were not in carrier service at the date of the act, and it is certain thousands of them never again will be. The petitioners say the provision was inserted to assure those on furlough, or temporarily relieved from duty subject to call, the benefit of past years of service, in the event of re-employment, and to prevent the carriers from escaping their just obligations by omitting to recall these persons to service. And it is said that to attempt nicely to adjust the provisions of the act to furloughed men

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would involve difficulties of interpretation and inequalities of operation which the blanket provision avoids. We cannot accept this view. It is arbitrary in the last degree to place upon the carriers the burden of gratuities to thousands who have been unfaithful and for that cause have been separated from the service, or who have elected to pursue some other calling, or who have retired from the business, or have been for other reasons lawfully dismissed. And the claim that such largess will promote efficiency or safety in the future operation of the railroads is without support in reason or common sense.

In addition to the 146,000 who left the service during the year preceding the passage of the act, over 1,000,000 persons have been,...

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