Robert Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Company No 270 Same v. Chesapeake Ohio Railway Company No 271 Same v. Chesapeake Western Railway No 272 Same v. Louisville Nashville Railroad Company No 273 Same v. Norfolk Western Railway Company No 274 Same v. Southern Railway Company No 275

Decision Date30 November 1908
Docket NumberNos. 270-275,s. 270-275
PartiesROBERT R. PRENTIS, Henry C. Stuart, and Joseph E. Willard, Individually and as Constituting the State Corporation Commission of Virginia, and R. T. Wilson, Clerk of the State Corporation Commission of Virginia, Appts., v. ATLANTIC COAST LINE COMPANY. NO 270. SAME, Appts., v. CHESAPEAKE & OHIO RAILWAY COMPANY. NO 271. SAME, Appts., v. CHESAPEAKE WESTERN RAILWAY. NO 272. SAME, Appts., v. LOUISVILLE & NASHVILLE RAILROAD COMPANY. NO 273. SAME, Appts., v. NORFOLK & WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY. NO 274. SAME, Appts., v. SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY. NO 275
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. William A. Anderson, John W. Daniel, and A. Caperton Braxton for appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 211-215 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Alfred P. Thom, Alexander Hamilton, William B. McIlwaine, H. T. Wickham, Henry Taylor, Jr., S. S. P. Patteson, Henry L. Stone, Joseph I. Doran, Lucian H. Cocke, John K. Graves, and George H. Taylor for appellees.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 216-223 intentionally omitted]

Page 223

Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

These are bills in equity brought in the circuit court to enjoin the members and clerk of the Virginia State Corporation Commission from publishing or taking any other steps to enforce a certain order fixing passenger rates. The bills allege, with some elaboration of the facts, that the rates in question are confiscatory, and other matters not necessary to mention, and set up the 14th Amendment, etc. The defendants appeared specially, and by demurrer and plea respectively put forward that the proceedings before the commission are proceedings in a court of the state, which the courts of the United States are forbidden to enjoin (8rev. Stat. § 720, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 581), and that the decision of the commission makes the legality of the rates res judicata. On these pleadings final decrees were entered for the plaintiffs, and the defendants appealed to this court. Therefore, as the case is presented, it is to be assumed that the order confiscates the plaintiffs' property and infringes the 14th Amendment if the matter is open to inquity. The question principally argued, and the main question to be discussed, is whether the order is one which, in spite of its constitutional invalidity, the courts of the United States are not at liberty to impugn.

Page 224

The State Corporation Commission is established and its powers are defined at length by the Constitution of the state. There is no need to rehearse the provisions that give it dignity and importance or that add judicial to its other functions, because we shall assume that, for some purposes, it is a court within the meaning of Rev. Stat. § 720, and in the commonly accepted sense of that word. Among its duties it exercises the authority of the state to supervise, regulate, and control public service corporations, and to that end, as is said by the supreme court of Virginia and repeated by counsel at the bar, it has been clothed with legislative, judicial, and executive powers. Norfolk & P. Belt Line R. Co. v. Com. 103 Va. 289, 294, 49 S. E. 39.

The state Constitution provides that the commission, in the performance of the duty just mentioned, shall, from time to time, prescribe and enforce such rates, charges, classification of traffic, and rules and regulations for transportation and transmission companies doing business in the state, and shall require them to establish and maintain all such public service facilities and conveniences as may be reasonable and just. Before prescribing or fixing any rate or charge, etc., it is to give notice (in case of a general order not directed against any specific company by name, by four weeks' publication in a newspaper) of the substance of the contemplated action and of a time and place when the commission will hear objections and evidence against it. If an order is passed, the order again is to be published as above before it shall go into effect. An appeal to the supreme court of appeals is given of right to any party aggrieved, upon conditions not necessary to be stated, and that court, if it reverses what has been done, is to substitute such order as, in its opinion, the commission should have made. The commission is to certify the facts upon which its action was based and such evidence as may be required, but no new evidence is to be received, and how far the findings of the commission can be revised perhaps is not quite plain. No other court of the state can review, reverse, correct, or annual

Page 225

the action of the commission, and, in collateral proceedings, the validity of the rates established by it cannot be called in doubt.

When a rate has been fixed, the commission has power to enforce compliance with its order by adjudging and enforcing, by its own appropriate process, against the offending company, the fines and penalties established by law. But a hearing is required, and the validity and reasonableness of the order may be attacked again in this proceeding, and all defenses seem to be open to the party charged with a breach.

On July 31, 1906, under the provisions outlined, the commission published in a newspaper notice to the several steam railroad companies doing business in Virginia, and all persons interested, that, at a certain time and place, it would hear objections to an order prescribing a maximum rate of 2 cents a mile for the transportation of passengers, with details not needing to be stated. A hearing was had, and the complainants (appellees) severally appeared and urged objections similar to those set up in the bills. On April 27, 1907, the commission passed an order prescribing the rates, but in more specific form. For certain railroads named, including all of the complainants except as we shall state, the rate was to be 2 cents; for certain excepted branches of the Southern Railway Company, 2 1/2; for others, including the Chesapeake Western Railway, 3; and for others 3 1/2 cents a mile, with a minimum charge of 10 cents. Publication of the order was directed, and at that stage these bills were brought.

In order to decide the cases it is not necessary to discuss all the questions that were raised or touched upon in argument, and some we shall lay on one side. We shall assume that when, as here, a state Constitution sees fit to unite legislative and judicial powers in a single hand, there is nothing to hinder, so far as the Constitution of the United States is concerned. Dreyer v. Illinois, 187 U. S. 71, 83, 84, 47 L. ed. 79, 85, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 28; Winchester & S. R. Co. v. Com. 106 Va. 264, 268, 55 S. E. 692. We shall assume, as we have said, that some of the powers of the com-

Page 226

mission are judicial, and we shall assume, without deciding, that, if it was proceeding against the appellees to enforce this order and to punish them for a breach, it then would be sitting as a court and would be protected from interference on the part of courts of the United States.

But we think it equally plain that the proceedings drawn in question here are legislative in their nature, and none the less so that they have taken place with a body which, at another moment, or in its principal or dominant aspect, is a court such as is meant by § 720. A judicial inquiry investigates, declares, and enforces liabilities as they stand on present or past facts and under laws supposed already to exist. That is its purpose and end. Legislation, on the other hand, looks to the future and changes existing conditions by making a new rule, to be applied thereafter to all or some part of those subject to its power. The establishment of a rate is the making of a rule for the future, and therefore is an act legislative, not judicial, in kind, as seems to be fully recognized by the supreme court of appeals (Com. v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. 106 Va. 61, 64, 7 L.R.A.[N.S.] 1086, 117 Am. St. Rep. 983, 55 S. E. 572), and especially by its learned president in his pointed remarks in Winchester & S. R. Co. v. Com. 106 Va. 264, 281, 55 S. E. 692. See, further, Interstate Commerce Commission v. Cincinnati, N. O. & T. P. R. Co. 167 U. S. 479, 499, 500, 505, 42 L. ed. 243, 253, 255, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 896; San Diego Land & Town Co. v. Jasper, 189 U. S. 439, 440, 47 L. ed. 892, 893, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 571.

Proceedings legislative in nature are not proceedings in a court, within the meaning of Rev. Stat. § 720, no matter what may be the general or dominant character of the body in which they may take place. Southern R. Co. v. Greensboro 1ce & Coal Co. 134 Fed. 82, 94, Affirmed in 202 U. S. 543, 50 L. ed. 1142, 26 Sup. Ct. Rep. 722. That question depends not upon the character of the body, but upon the character of the proceedings. Ex parte Virginia, 100 U. S. 339, 348, 25 L. ed. 676, 680. They are not a suit in which a writ of error would lie under Rev. Stat. § 709, and act of February 18, 1875, chap. 80, 18 Stat. at L. 318, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 575. See Upshur County v. Rich, 135 U. S. 467, 34 L. ed. 196, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 651; Wallace v. Adams, 204

Page 227

U. S. 415, 423, 51 L. ed. 547, 551, 27 Sup. Ct. Rep. 363. The decision upon them cannot be res judicata when a suit is brought. See Reagan v. Farmers' Loan & T. Co. 154 U. S. 362, 38 L. ed. 1014, 4 Inters. Com. Rep. 560, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1047. And it does not matter what inquiries may have been made as a preliminary to the legislative act. Most legislation is preceded by hearings and investigations. But the effect of the inquiry, and of the decision upon it, is determined by the nature of the act to which the inquiry and decision lead up. A judge sitting with a jury is not competent to decide issues of fact; but matters of fact that are merely premises to a rule of law he may decide. He may find out for himself, in whatever way seems best, whether a supposed statute ever really was passed. In Pickering v. Barkley,...

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