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CRS Annotated Constitution

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Congressional Regulation of Waterways

Navigation.—In Pennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Co., 633 the Court granted an injunction requiring that a bridge, erected over the Ohio River under a charter from the State of Virginia, either be altered so as to admit of free navigation of the river or else be entirely abated. The decision was justified on the basis both of the commerce clause and of a compact between Virginia and Kentucky, whereby both these States had agreed to keep the Ohio River “free and common to the citizens of the United States.” The injunction was promptly rendered inoperative by an act of Congress declaring the bridge to be “a lawful structure” and requiring all vessels navigating the Ohio to be so regulated as not to interfere with it.634 This act the Court sustained as within Congress’ power under the commerce clause, saying: “So far . . . as this bridge created an obstruction to the free navigation of the river, in view of the previous acts of Congress, they are to be regarded as modified by this subsequent legislation; and, although it still may be an obstruction in fact, [it] is not so in the contemplation of law. . . . [Congress] having in the exercise of this power, regulated the navigation consistent with its preservation and continuation, the authority to maintain it would seem to be complete. That authority combines the concurrent powers of both governments, State and federal, which, if not sufficient, certainly none can be found in our system of government.”635 In short, it is Congress, and not the Court, which is authorized by the Constitution to regulate commerce.636

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The law and doctrine of the earlier cases with respect to the fostering and protection of navigation are well summed up in a frequently cited passage from the Court’s opinion in Gilman v. Philadelphia.637 “Commerce includes navigation. The power to regulate commerce comprehends the control for that purpose, and to the extent necessary, of all the navigable waters of the United States which are accessible from a State other than those in which they lie. For this purpose they are the public property of the nation, and subject to all requisite legislation by Congress. This necessarily includes the power to keep them open and free from any obstruction to their navigation, interposed by the States or otherwise; to remove such obstructions when they exist; and to provide, by such sanctions as they may deem proper, against the occurrence of the evil and for the punishment of offenders. For these purposes, Congress possesses all the powers which existed in the States before the adoption of the national Constitution, and which have always existed in the Parliament in England.”638

Thus, Congress was within its powers in vesting the Secretary of War with power to determine whether a structure of any nature in or over a navigable stream is an obstruction to navigation and to order its abatement if he so finds.639 Nor is the United States required to compensate the owners of such structures for their loss, since they were always subject to the servitude represented by Congress’ powers over commerce, and the same is true of the property of riparian owners that is damaged.640 And while it was formerly held that lands adjoining nonnavigable streams were not[p.172]subject to the above mentioned servitude,641 this rule has been impaired by recent decisions;642 and at any rate it would not apply as to a stream rendered navigable by improvements.643

In exercising its power to foster and protect navigation, Congress legislates primarily on things external to the act of navigation. But that act itself and the instruments by which it is accomplished are also subject to Congress’ power if and when they enter into or form a part of “commerce among the several States.” When does this happen? Words quoted above from the Court’s opinion in the Gilman case answered this question to some extent; but the decisive answer to it was returned five years later in the case of The Daniel Ball.644 Here the question at issue was whether an act of Congress, passed in 1838 and amended in 1852, which required that steam vessels engaged in transporting passengers or merchandise upon the “bays, lakes, rivers, or other navigable waters of the United States,” applied to the case of a vessel that navigated only the waters of the Grand River, a stream lying entirely in the State of Michigan. The Court ruled: “In this case it is admitted that the steamer was engaged in shipping and transporting down Grand River, goods destined and marked for other States than Michigan, and in receiving and transporting up the river goods brought within the State from without its limits; . . . . So far as she was employed in transporting goods destined for other States, or goods brought from without the limits of Michigan and destined to places within that State, she was engaged in commerce between the States, and however limited that commerce may have been, she was, so far as it went, subject to the legislation of Congress. She was employed as an instrument of that commerce; for whenever a commodity has begun to move as an article of trade from one State to another, commerce in that commodity between the States has commenced.”645

Counsel had suggested that if the vessel was in commerce because it was part of a stream of commerce then all transportation within a State was commerce. Turning to this point, the Court added: “We answer that the present case relates to transportation on the navigable waters of the United States, and we are not called upon to express an opinion upon the power of Congress over interstate commerce when carried on by land transportation. And we answer further, that we are unable to draw any clear and distinct[p.173]line between the authority of Congress to regulate an agency employed in commerce between the States, when the agency extends through two or more States, and when it is confined in its action entirely within the limits of a single State. If its authority does not extend to an agency in such commerce, when that agency is confined within the limits of a State, its entire authority over interstate commerce may be defeated. Several agencies combining, each taking up the commodity transported at the boundary line at one end of a State, and leaving it at the boundary line at the other end, the federal jurisdiction would be entirely ousted, and the constitutional provision would become a dead letter.”646 In short, it was admitted, inferentially, that the principle of the decision would apply to land transportation, but the actual demonstration of the fact still awaited some years.647


Footnotes

633 13 How. (54 U.S.) 518 (1852).
634 10Stat112,6 (1852).
635 Pennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Co., 18 How. (59 U.S.) 421, 430 (1856). “It is Congress, and not the Judicial Department, to which the Constitution has given the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several States. The courts can never take the initiative on this subject.” Transportation Co. v. Parkersburg, 107 U.S. 691, 701 (1883). See also Prudential Ins. Co. v. Benjamin, 328 U.S. 408 (1946); Robertson v. California, 328 U.S. 440 (1946).
636 But see In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895), in which the Court held that in the absence of legislative authorization the Executive had power to seek and federal courts to grant injunctive relief to remove obstructions to interstate commerce and the free flow of the mail.
637 3 Wall. (70 U.S.) 713 (1866).
638 Id., 724–725.
639 Union Bridge Co. v. United States, 204 U.S. 364 (1907). See also Monongahela Bridge Co. v. United States, 216 U.S. 177 (1910); Wisconsin v. Illinois, 278 U.S. 367 (1929). The United States may seek injunctive or declaratory relief requiring the removal of obstructions to commerce by those negligently responsible for them or it may itself remove the obstructions and proceed against the responsible party for costs. United States v. Republic Steel Corp., 362 U.S. 482 (1960); Wyandotte Transportation Co. v. United States, 389 U.S. 191 (1967). Congress’ power in this area is newly demonstrated by legislation aimed at pollution and environmental degradation. In confirming the title of the States to certain waters under the Submerged Lands Act, 67 Stat. 29 (1953), 43 U.S.C. Sec. 1301 et seq., Congress was careful to retain authority over the waters for purposes of commerce, navigation, and the like. United States v. Rands, 389 U.S. 121, 127 (1967).
640 Gibson v. United States, 166 U.S. 269 (1897). See also Bridge Co. v. United States, 105 U.S. 470 (1882); United States v Rio Grande Irrigation Co., 174 U.S. 690 (1899); United States v. Chandler– Dunbar Co., 229 U.S. 53 (1913); Seattle v. Oregon & W.R.R., 255 U.S. 56, 63 (1921); Economy Light Co. v. United States, 256 U.S. 113 (1921); United States v. River Rouge Co., 269 U.S. 411, 419 (1926); Ford & Son v. Little Falls Co., 280 U.S. 369 (1930); United States v. Commodore Park, 324 U.S. 386 (1945); United States v. Twin City Power Co., 350 U.S. 222 (1956); United States v. Rands, 389 U.S. 121 (1967).
641 United States v. Cress, 243 U.S. 316 (1917).
642 United States v. Chicago, M., St. P. & P.R. Co., 312 U.S. 592, 597 (1941); United States v. Willow River Co., 324 U.S. 499 (1945).
643 United States v. Rio Grande Irrigation Co., 174 U.S. 690 (1899).
644 10 Wall. (77 U.S.) 557 (1871).
645 Id., 565.
646 Id., 566. “The regulation of commerce implies as much control, as far–reaching power, over an artificial as over a natural highway.” Justice Brewer for the Court in Monongahela Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U.S. 312, 342 (1893).
647 Congress had the right to confer upon the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to regulate interstate ferry rates, N.Y. Central R.R. v. Hudson County, 227 U.S. 248 (1913), and to authorize the Commission to govern the towing of vessels between points in the same State but partly through waters of an adjoining State. Cornell Steamboat Co. v. United States, 321 U.S. 634 (1944). Congress’ power over navigation extends to persons furnishing wharfage, dock, warehouse, and other terminal facilities to a common carrier by water. Hence an order of the United States Maritime Commission banning certain allegedly “unreasonable practices” by terminals in the Port of San Francisco, and prescribing schedules of maximum free time periods and of minimum charges was constitutional. California v. United States, 320 U.S. 577 (1944). The same power also comprises regulation of the registry enrollment, license, and nationality of ships and vessels, the method of recording bills of sale and mortgages thereon, the rights and duties of seamen, the limitations of the responsibility of shipowners for the negligence and misconduct of their captains and crews, and many other things of a character truly maritime. See The Lottawanna, 21 Wall. (88 U.S.) 558, 577 (1875); Providence & N.Y. SS. Co. v. Hill Mfg. Co., 109 U.S. 578, 589 (1883); The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398 (1907); O’Donnell v. Great Lakes Co., 318 U.S. 36 (1943).
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