United States v. American Trucking Ass Ns

Decision Date27 May 1940
Docket NumberNo. 713,713
PartiesUNITED STATES et al. v. AMERICAN TRUCKING ASS'NS, Inc., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the District of Columbia.

Robert H. Jackson, Atty. Gen., and Thomas E. Harris, of Washington, D.C., for appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from page 535 intentionally omitted] Mr. J. Ninian Beall, of Washington, D.C., for appellees.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 536-537 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal requires determination of the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission under the Motor Carrier Act, 1935, to establish reasonable requirements with respect to the qualifications and maximum hours of service of employees of motor carriers, other than employees whose duties affect safety of operation.

After detailed consideration, the Motor Carrier Act, 1935, was passed.1 It followed generally the suggestion of form made by the Federal Coordinator of Transportation.2 The difficulty and wide scope of the problems raised by the growth of the motor carrier industry were obvious. Congress sought to set out its purpose and the range of its action in a declaration of policy which covered the preservation and fostering of motor transportation in the public interest, tariffs, the coordination of motor carriage with other forms of transportation and cooperation with the several states in their efforts to systematize the industry.3

While efficient and economical movement in interstate commerce is obviously a major objective of the Act,4 there are numerous provisions which make it clear that Congress intended to exercise its powers in the non-transpor- tation phases of motor carrier activity.5 Safety of operation was constantly before the committees and Congress in their study of the situation.6

The pertinent portions of the section of the Act immediately under discussion read as follows:

'Sec. 204 (§ 304) (a). It shall be the duty of the Commission

'(1) To regulate common carriers by motor vehicle as provided in this part (chapter), and to that end the Commission may establish reasonable requirements with respect to continuous and adequate service, transportation of baggage and express, uniform systems of accounts, records, and reports, preservation of records, qualifications and maximum hours of service of employees, and safety of operation and equipment.

'(2) To regulate contract carriers by motor vehicle as provided in this part (chapter), and to that end the Commission may establish reasonable requirements with respect to uniform systems of accounts, records, and reports, preservation of records, qualifications and maximum hours of service of employees, and safety of operation and equipment.

'(3) To establish for private carriers of property by motor vehicle, if need therefor is found, reasonable requirements to promote safety of operation, and to that end prescribe qualifications and maximum hours of service of employees, and standards of equipment. * * *'

Shortly after the approval of the Act, the Commission on its own motion undertook to and did fix maximum hours of service for 'employees whose functions in the operation of motor vehicles make such regulations desirable because of safety considerations.'7 A few months after this determination, the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted.8 Section 7 of this act limits the workweek at the normal rate of pay of all employees subject to its terms and Section 18 makes the maximum hours of the Fair Labor Standards Act subject to further reduction by applicable federal or state law or municipal ordinances. There were certain employees excepted, however, from these regulations by Section 13(b). It reads as follows:

'Sec. 13(§ 213). * * * (b) The provisions of section 7 (207) shall not apply with respect to (1) any employee with respect to whom the Interstate Commerce Commission has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service pursuant to the provisions of section 204 (304 of Title 49) of the Motor Carrier Act, 1935; * * *.'

This exemption brought sharply into focus the coverage of employees by Motor Carrier Act, Section 204(a). Clerical, storage and other non-transportation workers are under this or the Fair Labor Standards Act, dependent upon the sweep of the word employee in this act. The Commission again examined the question of its jurisdiction and in Ex parte No. MC-289 again reached the conclusion that its power under 'section 204(a)(1) and (2) is limited to prescribing qualifications and maximum hours of service for those employees * * * whose activities affect the safety of operation.' It added: 'The provisions of section 202 evince a clear intent of Congress to limit our jurisdiction to regulating the motor-carrier industry as a part of the transportation system of the nation. To extend that regulation to features which are not char- acteristic of transportation nor inherent in that industry strikes us as an enlargement of our jurisdiction unwarranted by any express or implied provision in the act, which vests in us all the powers we have.'10 The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor arrived at the same result in an interpretation.11

Shortly thereafter appellees, an association of truckmen and various common carriers by motor, filed a petition with the Commission in the present case seeking an exercise of the Commission's jurisdiction under Section 204(a) to fix reasonable requirements 'with respect to qualifications and maximum hours of service of all employees of common and contract carriers, except employees whose duties are related to safety of operations; (3) to disregard its report and order in Ex parte MC-28'12 The Commission reaffirmed its position and denied the petition. The appellees petitioned a three-judge district court to compel the Commission to take jurisdiction and consider the establishment of qualifications and hours of service of all employees of common and contract carriers by motor vehicle.13 The Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division was permitted to intervene.14 The district court reversed the Commission, set aside its order and directed it to take jurisdiction of the appellees' petition. 31 F.Supp. 35. A direct appeal to this Court was granted.15

In the broad domain of social legislation few problems are enmeshed with the difficulties that surround a de- termination of what qualifications an employee shall have and how long his hours of work may be. Upon the proper adjustment of these factors within an industry and in relation to competitive activities may well depend the economic success of the enterprises affected as well as the employment and efficiency of the workers. The Motor Carrier Act lays little emphasis upon the clause we are called upon now to construe, 'qualifications and maximum hours of service of employees.' None of the words are defined by the Section, 203, devoted to the explanation of the meaning of the words used in the Act. They are a part of an elaborate enactment drawn and passed in an attempt to adjust a new and growing transportation service to the needs of the public. To find their content, they must be viewed in their setting.

In the interpretation of statutes, the function of the courts is easily stated. It is to construe the language so as to give effect to the intent of Congress.16 There is no invariable rule for the discovery of that intention. To take a few words from their context and with them thus isolated to attempt to determine their meaning, certainly would not contribute greatly to the discovery of the purpose of the draftsmen of a statute, particularly in a law drawn to meet many needs of a major occupation.17

There is, of course, no more persuasive evidence of the purpose of a statute than the words by which the legislature undertook to give expression to its wishes. Often these words are sufficient in and of themselves to determine the purpose of the legislation. In such cases we have followed their plain meaning.18 When that meaning has led to absurd or futile results, however, this Court has looked beyond the words to the purpose of the act.19 Frequently, however, even when the plain meaning did not produce absurd results but merely an unreasonable one 'plainly at variance with the policy of the legislation as a whole'20 this Court has followed that purpose, rather than the literal words.21 When aid to construction of the meaning of words, as used in the statute, is available, there certainly can be no 'rule of law' which forbids its use,22 however clear the words may appear on 'superficial examination.'23 The interpretation of the meaning of statutes, as applied to justiciable controversies, is exclusively a judicial function. This duty requires one body of public servants, the judges, to construe the meaning of what another body, the legislators, has said. Obviously there is danger that the courts' conclusion as to legislative purpose will be unconsciously influenced by the judges' own views or by factors not considered by the enacting body. A lively appreciation of the danger is the best assurance of escape from its threat but hardly justifies an acceptance of a literal interpretation dogma which withholds from the courts available information for reaching a correct conclusion.24 Emphasis should be laid, too, upon the necessity for appraisal of the purposes as a whole of Congress in analyzing the meaning of clauses or sections of general acts. A few words of general connotation appearing in the text of statutes should not be given a wide meaning, contrary to a settled policy, 'excepting as a different purpose is plainly shown.'25

The language here under consideration, if construed as appellees contend, gives to the Commission a power of regulation as to qualifications and hours of employees quite distinct from the settled practice of Congress. That policy has been...

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