|Proprietors of Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren Bridge
100 U.S. 1
[ Taney ]
[ Mclean ]
[ Story ]
[ Thompson ]
Proprietors of Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren Bridge
This suit in chancery was commenced in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, where the bill was dismissed, by a decree pro forma, the members of that Court being equally divided in opinion, and a writ of error was taken to this Court on the ground that the right asserted by the complainants, and which has been violated, under the charter of the respondents, is protected by a special provision in the federal Constitution.
The complainants' right is founded on an act of the Legislature of Massachusetts, passed March 9th, 1785, which incorporated certain individuals, and authorized them to erect a bridge over Charles River, a navigable stream between Boston and Charlestown, and an amendatory act, passed in 1791, extending the charter thirty years. As explanatory of this right, if not the ground on which it in part rests, a reference is made to an ancient ferry over the same river which was held by Harvard College and the right of which was transferred, it is contended, in equity, if not in law, to the bridge company. The wrong complained of consists in the construction of a new bridge over the same river, under a recent act of the Legislature, within a few rods of the old one, and which takes away the entire profits of the old bridge.
The act to establish the Charles River Bridge required it to be constructed within a limited time, of certain dimensions, to be kept in repair, and to afford certain specified accommodations to the public. The company were authorized to charge certain rates of toll, and they were required to pay, annually, £200 to Harvard College. The first charter was granted for forty years. The facts proved in the case show that a bridge of the description required by the Act of 1785 was constructed within the time limited, that the annual payment has been made to the college, and that, in every other respect, the corporation has faithfully performed the conditions and duties enjoined on it.
It is contended that the charter granted to the respondents, violates the obligation of that which had been previously granted to the complainants, and that, consequently, it is in conflict with that provision of the Constitution which declares that no "state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts."
In the investigation of this case, the first inquiry which seems naturally [p555] to arise is as to the nature and extent of the right asserted by the complainants. As early as the year 1631, a ferry was established across Charles River, by the colonial government of Massachusetts Bay. In 1640, the General Court say "that the ferry is granted to the college." From this time, the profits of the ferry were received by the college, and it was required, by various statutes, under certain penalties, to keep certain boats, &c., for the accommodation of the public. This duty was performed by the college, and it continued to occupy the ferry until the Charles River Bridge was constructed.
From the above act of the General Court, and others which have been shown, and the unmolested use of the ferry for more than 140 years by the college, it would seem that its right to this use had received all the sanctions necessary to constitute a valid title. If the right was not founded strictly on prescription, it rested on a basis equally unquestionable.
At the time this ferry was established, it was the only public communication between Boston and Charlestown. These places, and especially the latter, were then small, and no greater accommodation was required than was afforded by the ferry. Its franchise was not limited, it is contended, to the ferry ways, but extended to the whole line of travel between the two towns.
It cannot be very material to inquire whether this ferry was originally public or private property, or whether the landing places were vested in the college, or their use only, and the profits of the ferry. The beneficial interest in the ferry was held by the college, and it received the tolls. The regulation of the ferry, it being a matter of public concern, belonged to the government. It prescribed the number of boats to be kept, and the attendance necessary to be given, and, on a failure to comply with these requisitions, the college would have been subjected to the forfeiture of the franchise and the other penalties provided by statute. Was this right of ferry, with all its immunities, transferred to the Charles River Bridge Company?
It is not contended that there is any express assignment of this right, by deed or otherwise, but the complainants claim that the evidence of the transfer is found in the facts of the case. Before the charter was granted, the college was consulted on the subject; so soon as the bridge was constructed, the use of the ferry ceased, [p556] and the college has regularly received from the complainants the annuity of £200. This acquiescence, it is contended, taken in connection with the other facts in the case, goes to establish the relinquishment of the right to the ferry for the annual compensation required to be paid under the charter. That there was a substitution of the bridge for the ferry, with the consent of the college, is evident, but there seems to have been no assignment of the rights of the ferry. The original bridge charter was granted for forty years, at the expiration of which period the property of the bridge was to revert to the Commonwealth,
saving to the college a reasonable and annual compensation for the annual income of the ferry, which they might have received had not said bridge been erected.
Had the bridge been destroyed by fire or otherwise, there was no investiture of right to the ferry in the complainants that would have enabled them to keep up the ferry and realize the profits of it. On the destruction of the bridge, the college, it is presumed, might have resumed all the rights and responsibilities attached to the ferry. At least it is very clear that these rights and responsibilities would not have devolved on the complainants. They stipulated to afford a different accommodation to the public. If, then, these rights could not have been claimed and exercised by the complainants, under such circumstances, how can they be considered as enlarging, or in any way materially affecting, the franchise under the charter of 1785?
That the franchise of a ferry, at common law and in the State of Massachusetts, extends beyond the landing places is very clear from authority. 10 Petersdorf 53; 13 Vin. 513; Willes' Rep. 512 note; 12 East 330; 6 Barn. & Cres. 703; Year Book, Hen. 6, 22; Rolles' Abr. 140; Fitz. 428 n; Com.Digest Market, c. 2; Piscary, B. Action on the Case, A.; 3 Blk. 219; 1 Nott & M'Cord 387; 2 Saund. 172; 6 Mod. 229; 2 Vent. 344; 3 Levinz 220; Com.Dig.Patent, F. 4, 5, 6, 7; 2 Saund. 72, n. 4; 2 Inst. 406; Chit.Pre. 12, chap. 3; 10, chap. 2; 3 Salk. 198; Willes 512; 4 T.R. 666; Saund. 114, Cro.E. 710.
The annuity given to the college was a compensation for the profits of the ferry, and shows a willingness by the college to suspend its rights to the ferry, during the time specified in the act. And if, indeed, it might be construed into an abandonment of the ferry, still it was an abandonment to the public, on the terms specified, for a better accommodation. [p557]
The bridge was designed not only to answer all the purposes of the ferry, but to enlarge the public convenience. The profits contemplated by the corporators were not only those which had been realized from the ferry, but such as would arise from the increased facilities to the public.
If there was no assignment of the ferry franchise to the complainants, its extent cannot be a matter of importance in this investigation, nor is it necessary to inquire into the effect of an assignment, under the circumstances of the case, if it had been made. There is no provision in the act of incorporation vesting the company with the privileges of the ferry. A reference is made to it merely with the view of fixing the site of the bridge. The right and obligations of the complainants must be ascertained by the construction of the Act of 1785.
This act must be considered in the light of a contract, and the law of contracts applies to it. In one sense it is a law, having passed through all the forms of legislation and received the necessary sanctions, but it is essentially a contract as to the obligation imposed by it and the privileges it confers.
Much discussion has been had at the bar as to the rule of construing a charter or grant, and many authorities have been referred to on this point. In ordinary cases, a grant is construed favorable to the grantee, and against the grantor. But it is contended that, in governmental grants, nothing is taken by implication. The broad rule thus laid down cannot be sustained by authority. If an office be granted by name, all the immunities of that office are taken by implication. Whatever is essential to the enjoyment of the thing granted must be taken by implication. And this rule holds good whether the grant emanate from the royal prerogative of the King, in England, or under an act of legislation, in this country. The general rule is that "a grant of the King, at the suit of the grantee, is to be construed most beneficially for the King, and most strictly against the grantee," but grants obtained as a matter of special favor of the King, or on a consideration, are more liberally construed. Grants of limited political powers are construed strictly. Com.Dig. tit. Grant, E. 5; 2 Dane's Abr. 683; Stark v. McGowan, 1 Nott & M'Cord 387; Pop. 79; Moore 474; 8 Coke 92; 6 Barn. & Cres. 703; 5 Ib. 875; 3 M. & S. 247; Hargrave, 18-23; Angel on Tide Water 106-1077, 4 Burr. 2161; 4 T.R. 439; 2 Bos. [p558] & Pul. 472; 1 T.R. 669; 1 Con.Rep. 382; 17 Johns. 195; 3 M. & S. 247; 6 Mass. 437; 1 Mass. 231; 17 Mass. 289; Angel 108; 4 Mass. 140, 522; Bac.Pre.T.2; Plow. 336-337, 9 Coke 30; 1 Vent. 409; Croke J. 179; Dyer 30; Saville 132; 10 Coke 112; Com.Dig.Grant, 9, 12; Bac.tit.Prerog. 2; 5 Barn. & Cres. 875; 1 Mass. 356.
Where the Legislature, with a view of advancing the public interest by the construction of a bridge, a turnpike road, or any other work of public utility, grants a charter, no reason is perceived why such a charter should not be construed by the same rule that governs contracts between individuals. The public, through their agent, enter into the contract with the company, and a valuable consideration is received in the construction of the contemplated improvement. This consideration is paid by the company, and sound policy requires that its rights should be ascertained and protected by the same rules as are applied to private contracts.
In the argument, great reliance was placed on the case of the Stourbridge Canal v. Wheeley and Others, 2 Barn. & Ald. 792. The question in this case was, whether the plaintiffs had a right to charge toll in certain cases, and Lord Tenterden said,
the canal having been made under the provisions of an act of Parliament, the rights of the plaintiff are derived entirely from that act. This, like many other cases, is a bargain between a company of adventurers and the public, the terms of which are expressed in the statute, and the rule of construction in all such cases, is now fully established to be this -- that any ambiguity in the terms of the contract must operate against the adventurers, and in favor of the public, and the plaintiffs can claim nothing which is not clearly given to them by the act.
This is relied on to show that nothing is taken, under such a grant, by implication or inference. His lordship says the right must be clearly given -- he does not say expressly given, which would preclude all inference. In another part of the same opinion, his lordship says,
Now it is quite certain that the company have no right, expressly given, to receive any compensation except the tonnage paid for goods carried through some of the locks on the canal, or the collateral cuts, and it is, therefore, incumbent upon them to show that they have a right, clearly given, by inference, from some of the [p559] other clauses.
May this right be shown by inference, and is not this implication? The doctrine laid down in this case is simply this: that the right to charge the toll must be given expressly or it must be clearly made out by inference. Does not this case establish the doctrine of implication, as applied to the construction of grants? Is it not the right to pass by-laws incident to a corporation? A right cannot be claimed by a corporation under ambiguous terms; it must clearly appear to have been granted either in express terms or by inference, as stated by Lord Tenterden.
A corporate power to impose a tax on the land of the company, as considered in the case of Beaty v. Lessee of Knowles, 4 Pet. 168, must, in its nature, be strictly construed, and so, in all cases where corporate powers in the nature of legislation are exercised. In that case, the directors were authorized to impose a tax under certain circumstances, and the Court held that they had no power to impose the tax under other circumstances.
Charles River being a navigable stream, any obstructions to its navigation by the erection of a bridge or any other work would have been punishable unless authorized by law. By the Act of 1785, the complainants were authorized to build the bridge, elect their officers, &c., and charge certain rates of toll. The power to tax passengers was the consideration on which the expense of building the bridge, lighting it, &c., and keeping it in repair, was incurred. The grant, then, of tolls was the essential part of the franchise. That course of reasoning which would show the consideration to consist in anything short of this power to tax and the profit arising therefrom is too refined for practical purposes. The builders of the bridge had, no doubt, a desire to increase the public accommodation, but they looked chiefly to a profitable investment of their funds, and that part of the charter which secured this object formed the consideration on which the work was performed.
But it is said there was no exclusive right given, and that, consequently, the Legislature might well cause another bridge to be built whenever, in their opinion, the public convenience required it. On the other hand, it is insisted that the franchise of the bridge was as extensive as that of the ferry, and that the grant of this franchise having been made by the Legislature, it had no power to grant a part of it to the new bridge. [p560]
That this part of the case presents considerations of great importance and of much difficulty cannot be denied. To inquire into the validity of a solemn act of legislation is, at all times, a task of much delicacy, but it is peculiarly so when such inquiry is made by a federal tribunal and relates to the act of a State Legislature. There are cases, however, in the investigation of which such an inquiry becomes a duty, and then no Court can shrink, or desire to shrink, from its performance. Under such circumstances, this duty will always be performed with the high respect due to a branch of the government which, more than any other, is clothed with discretionary powers and influenced by the popular will.
The right granted to the Charles River Bridge Company is, in its nature, to a certain extent exclusive, but to measure this extent presents the chief difficulty. If the boundaries of this right could be clearly established, it would scarcely be contended by anyone that the Legislature could, without compensation, grant to another company the whole or any part of it. As well might it undertake to grant a tract of land although an operative grant had been previously made for the same land. In such a case, the second grant would be void on the ground that the Legislature had parted with the entire interest in the premises. As agent of the public, it has passed the title to the first grantee, and, having done so, it could convey no right by its second grant. The principle is the same in regard to the question under consideration. If the franchise granted to the complainants extended beyond the new bridge, it was as much above the power of the Legislature to make the second grant as it would be to grant a part of a tract of land for which a patent had been previously and regularly issued. The franchise, though incorporeal, in legal contemplation, has body and extension, and having been granted, is not less scrupulously guarded by the principles of law than an interest in the soil. It is a substantive right in law, and can no more be resumed by the Legislature, when once granted, than any other right.
But would it not be unsafe, it is suggested, for the judicial authority to interpose and limit this exercise of legislative discretion? The charter of the Warren Bridge, it is said, was not hastily granted; that all the circumstances of the case, year after year, were duly examined by the Legislature, and, at last, the act of incorporation was passed because, in the judgment of the Legislature, the public [p561] accommodation required it, and it is insisted that the grant to the complainants was necessarily subject to the exercise of this discretion.
It is undoubtedly the province of the Legislature to provide for the public exigencies, and the utmost respect is always due to their acts; and the validity of those acts can only be questioned judicially where they infringe upon private rights. At the time the Charles River Bridge was built, the population of Boston and Charlestown was small in comparison with their present numbers, and it is probable that the increase has greatly exceeded any calculation made at the time. The bridge was sufficient to accommodate the public, and it was, perhaps, believed that it would be sufficient during the time limited in the charter. If, however, the increased population and intercourse between these towns and the surrounding country required greater accommodation than was afforded by the bridge, there can be no doubt that the Legislature could make provision for it.
On the part of the complainants' counsel it is contended, if increased facilities of intercourse between these places were required by the public, the Legislature was bound in good faith to give the option to the Charles River Bridge Company, either to enlarge their bridge or construct a new one, as might be required. And this argument rests upon the ground that the complainants' franchise included the whole line of travel between the two places. Under this view of their rights, the company proposed to the Legislature, before the new charter was granted to the respondents, to do anything which should be deemed requisite for the public accommodation. In support of the complainants' right in this respect, a case in referred to in 7 Barn. & Cres. 40, where it is laid down that the lord of an ancient market may, by law, have a right to prevent other persons from selling goods in their private houses, situated within the limits of his franchise, and also to 5 Barn. & Cres. 363. These cases show that the grant to the lord of the market is exclusive, yet, if the place designated for the market is made too small by the act of the owner, any person may sell in the vicinity of the market without incurring any responsibility to the lord of the market.
Suppose, the Legislature had passed a law requiring the [p562] complainants to enlarge their bridge, or construct a new one, would they have been bound by it? Might they have not replied to the Legislature, we have constructed our bridge of the dimensions required by the charter; we have therefore provided for the public all the accommodation which we are bound to give? And if the Legislature could not require this of the complainants, is it not clear that they cannot assert an exclusive claim to the advantages of an enlarged accommodation? In common with our citizens, they submitted propositions to the Legislature, but they could urge no exclusive right to afford any accommodation beyond what was given by their bridge. When the Charles River Bridge was built, it was considered a work of great magnitude. It was, perhaps, the first experiment made to throw a bridge of such length over an arm of the sea, and in the construction of it, great risk and expense were incurred. The unrestricted profits contemplated were necessary to induce or justify the undertaking. Suppose, within two or three years after the Charles River Bridge had been erected, the Legislature had authorized another bridge to be built alongside of it which could only accommodate the same line of travel. Whether the profits of such a bridge were realized by a company or by the state, would not the act of the Legislature have been deemed so gross a violation of the rights of the complainants as to be condemned by the common sense and common justice of mankind? The plea that the timbers or stone of the new bridge did not interfere with the old one could not in such a case have availed. The value of the bridge is not estimated by the quantity of timber and stone it may contain, but by the travel over it. And if one-half or two-thirds of this travel, all of which might conveniently have passed over the old bridge, be drawn to the new one, the injury is much greater than would have been the destruction of the old bridge. A reconstruction of the bridge, if destroyed, would secure to the company the ordinary profits, but the division or destruction of the profits by the new bridge runs to the end of the charter of the old one. And shall it be said that the greater injury, the diversion of the profits, may be inflicted on the company with impunity, while, for the less injury, the destruction of the bridge, the law would give an adequate remedy?
I am not here about to apply the principles which have been long established in England for the protection of ancient ferries, [p563] fairs, mills, &c. In my opinion, this doctrine, in its full extent, is not adapted to the condition of our country. And it is one of the most valuable traits in the common law that it forms a rule of right only in cases and under circumstances adapted to its principles. In this country, there are few rights founded on prescription. The settlement of our country is comparatively recent, and its rapid growth in population and advance in improvements have prevented, in a great degree, interests from being acquired by immemorial usage. Such evidence of right is found in countries where society has become more fixed and improvements are in a great degree stationary. But without the aid of the principles of the common law, we should be at a loss how to construe the charter of the complainants and ascertain their rights.
Although the complainants cannot fix their franchise, by showing the extent of the ferry rights, yet, under the principles of the common law, which have been too long settled in Massachusetts, in my opinion, to be now shaken, they may claim their franchise beyond the timbers of their bridge. If they may go beyond these, it is contended that no exact limit can be prescribed. And because it may be difficult, and perhaps, impracticable, to designate with precision the exact limit, does it follow that the complainants' franchise is as narrow as their bridge? Is it more difficult to define, with reasonable certainty, the extent of this right than it is, in many other cases, to determine the character of an offence against the laws from established facts? What shall constitute a public or private nuisance? What measure of individual wrong shall be sufficient to convict a person of the latter? And what amount of inconvenience to the public shall constitute the former? Would it be more difficult to define the complainants' franchise than to answer these questions? And yet public and private nuisances are of daily cognisance in Courts of justice.
How have ferry rights, depending upon the same principles, been protected for centuries, in England? The principles of the common law are not applied with that mathematical precision of which the principles of the civil law are susceptible. But if the complainants' franchise cannot be measured by feet and inches, it does not follow that they have no rights.
In determining upon facts which establish rights or wrongs, [p564] public as well as private, an exercise of judgment is indispensable, the facts and circumstances of each case are considered, and a sound and legal conclusion is drawn from them.
The bridge of the complainants was substituted for the ferry, and it was designed to accommodate the course of travel between Boston and Charlestown. This was the view of the Legislature in granting the charter and of the complainants in accepting it. And if it be admitted that the great increase of population has required the erection of other bridges than that which is complained of in this suit over this arm of the sea, that can afford no protection to the defendants. If the interests of the complainants have been remotely injured by the construction of other bridges, does that give a license to the defendants to inflict on them a more direct and greater injury? By an extension of the complainants' charter, thirty years, an indemnity was given and accepted by them for the construction of the West Boston bridge.
The franchise of the complainants must extend a reasonable distance above and below the timbers of their bridge. This distance must not be so great as to subject the public to serious inconvenience, nor so limited as to authorize a ruinous competition. It may not be necessary to say that for a remote injury, the law would afford a remedy, but where the injury is ruinous, no doubt can exist on the subject. The new bridge, while tolls were charged, lessened the profits of the old one about one-half, or two-thirds, and now that it is a free bridge by law, the tolls received by the complainants are merely nominal. On what principle of law, can such an act be sustained? Are rights acquired under a solemn contract with the Legislature held by a more uncertain tenure than other rights? Is the legislative power so omnipotent in such cases as to resume what it has granted without compensation? It will scarcely be contended that, if the Legislature may do this, indirectly, it may not do it directly. If it may do it through the instrumentality of the Warren Bridge Company, it may dispense with that instrumentality.
But it is said that any check to the exercise of this discretion by the Legislature will operate against the advance of improvements. Will not a different effect be produced? If every bridge or turnpike company were liable to have their property wrested from them, under an act of the Legislature, without compensation, could much value be attached to such property? Would prudent men expend their funds in making such improvements? [p565]
Can it be considered as an injurious check to legislation that private property shall not be taken for public purposes without compensation? This restriction is imposed by the federal Constitution, and by the constitutions of the respective states.
But it has been urged that the property of the complainants has not been taken, as the tolls in anticipation cannot be denominated property. The entire value of the bridge consists in the right of exacting toll. Is not this right property, and cannot its value be measured? Do not past receipts and increased intercourse afford a rule by which future receipts may be estimated? And if the whole of these tolls are taken under an act of the Legislature, is not the property of the complainants taken? The charter of the complainants has been compared to a bank charter, which implies no obligation on the Legislature not to establish another bank in the same place. This is often done, and it is contended that, for the consequential injury done the old bank, by lessening its profits, no one supposes that an action would lie, or that the second charter is unconstitutional. This case bears little or no analogy to the one under consideration. A bank may wind up its business, or refuse its discounts, at the pleasure of its stockholders and directors. They are under no obligation to carry on the operations of the institution, or afford any amount of accommodation to the public. Not so with the complainants. Under heavy penalties, they are obliged to keep their bridge in repair, have it lighted, the gates kept open, and to pay £200 annually to the college. This the complainants are bound to do although the tolls received should scarcely pay for the oil consumed in the lamps of the bridge.
The sovereign power of the State has taken the tolls of the complainants, but it has left them in possession of their bridge. Its stones and timbers are untouched, and the roads that lead to it remain unobstructed.
One of the counsel in the defence, with emphasis, declared that the Legislature can no more repeal a charter than it can lead a citizen to the block. The Legislature cannot bring a citizen to the block; may it open his arteries? It cannot cut off his head; may it bleed him to death? Suppose the Legislature had authorized the construction of an impassable wall which encircled the ends of the bridge so as to prevent passengers from crossing on it. The wall may be as distant from the abutments of the bridge as the [p566] Warren Bridge. Would this be an infringement of the plaintiffs' franchise? On the principles contended for, how could it be so considered? If the plaintiffs' franchise is limited to their bridge, then they are not injured by the construction of this wall, or at least they are without remedy. This wall would be no more injurious to the plaintiffs than the free bridge. And the plaintiffs might be told, as alleged in this case, the wall does not touch your bridge. You are left in the full exercise of your corporate faculties. You have the same right to charge toll as you ever had.
The Legislature had the same right to destroy the plaintiffs' bridge by authorizing the construction of the wall as they had by authorizing the construction of a free bridge. In deciding this question, we are not to consider what may be the law on this subject in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia or Ohio, but what it is in Massachusetts. And in that state, the doctrine has been sanctioned that associations of men to accomplish enterprises of importance to the public, and who have vested their funds on the public faith, are entitled to protection. That their rights do not become the sport of popular excitement, any more than the rights of other citizens. The case under consideration forms, it is believed, a solitary exception to this rule, whether we look to the action of the Legislature, or the opinions of the distinguished jurists of the state, on the bench and at the bar.
The expense of keeping up the bridge and paying the annuity to the college is all that is left by the State to the complainants. Had this been proposed, or anything which might lead to such a result, soon after the construction of the complainants' bridge, it is not probable that it would have been sanctioned, and yet it might as well have been done then as now. A free bridge then could have been no more injurious to the plaintiffs than it is now. No reflection is intended on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is so renowned in our history for its intelligence, virtue and patriotism. She will not withhold justice when the rights of the complainants shall be established.
Much reliance is placed on the argument, in the case reported in 4 Pet. 560, in which it was decided that a law of the State of Rhode Island imposing a tax upon banks is constitutional. As these banks were chartered by the state, it was contended that there was no implied obligation on the Legislature not to tax them. That if [p567] this power could be exercised, it might be carried so far as to destroy the banks. But this Court sustained the right of the State to tax. The analogy between the two cases is not perceived. Does it follow, because the complainants' bridge is not exempt from taxation, that it may be destroyed, or its value greatly impaired by any other means? The power to tax extends to every description of property held within the state which is not specially exempted, and there is no reason or justice in withholding from the operation of this power property held directly under the grant of the state.
The complainants' charter has been called a monopoly, but in no just sense can it be so considered. A monopoly is that which has been granted without consideration, as a monopoly of trade, or of the manufacture of any particular article to the exclusion of all competition. It is withdrawing that which is a common right from the community and vesting it in one or more individuals, to the exclusion of all others. Such monopolies are justly odious, as they operate not only injuriously to trade, but against the general prosperity of society. But the accommodation afforded to the public by the Charles River Bridge, and the annuity paid to the college, constitute a valuable consideration for the privilege granted by the charter. The odious features of a monopoly do not, therefore, attach to the charter of the plaintiffs.
The 10th article of the declaration of rights in the Constitution of Massachusetts provides:
Whenever the public exigencies require that the property of any individual should be appropriated to public uses, he shall receive a reasonable compensation therefor.
And in the 12th article, it is declared that "no subject shall be deprived of his property, immunities, privileges or estate, but by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land." Here is a power, recognised in the sovereignty, and as incident to it, to apply private property to public uses by making for it a just compensation. This power overreaches every other, and must be exercised at the discretion of the government, and a bridge, a turnpike-road, a tract of land, or any other property may be taken, in whole or in part, for public purposes on condition of making compensation.
In the case of Chadwick v. The Proprietors of the Haverhill Bridge, reported in Dane's Abridgment 683, it appears that a bridge was built under a charter within forty yards of the plaintiff's ferry, and over the same water. By an act of the Legislature, commissioners were authorized to ascertain the damages sustained by the [p568] plaintiff, but he preferred his action at law, which was prosecuted, and adequate damages were recovered. It is true, this matter was referred to arbitrators, but they were men of distinguished legal attainments and great experience, and they, after determining that the plaintiff could sustain his action, assessed the damages. This award was sanctioned by the Court. Under the circumstances of this case, at least as great a weight of authority belongs to it as if the decision had been made by a court on the points involved. The case presented by the complainants is much stronger than Chadwick's, and if he was entitled to reparation for the injury done, no doubt can exist of the complainants' right.
In the extension of the national road through the State of Ohio, a free bridge was thrown across a stream by the side of a toll bridge, which had some ten or fifteen years of its charter to run. The new bridge did not in the least obstruct the passage over the old one, and it was contended that, as no exclusive right was given under the first grant, the owner of the toll bridge was entitled to no compensation. It was said on that occasion, as it has been urged on this, that the right was given subject to the discretion of the Legislature as to a subsequent grant, and that the new bridge could not be objected to by the first grantee, whether it was built under the authority of the State or federal government. This course of reasoning influenced a decision against the claimant in the first instance, but a reconsideration of his case, and a more thorough investigation of it, induced the proper authority to reverse the decision, and award an indemnity for the injury done. The value of the charter was estimated, and a just compensation was made. This, it is true, was not a judicial decision, but it was a decision of the high functionaries of the government, and is entitled to respect. It was dictated by that sense of justice which should be felt on the bench, and by every tribunal having the power to act upon private rights.
It is contended by the respondents' counsel that there was not only no exclusive right granted in the complainants' charter beyond the timbers of the bridge, but the broad ground is assumed that the Legislature had no power to make such a grant, that they cannot grant any part of the eminent domain which shall bind a subsequent Legislature. And a number of authorities were cited to sustain their position: 1 Vattell ch. 9, sec. 101; 4 Litt.R. 327; Domat, Book 1, tit. 6, sec. 1, 17 Vin. 88, Chit. on Prer. 81; 10 Price 350; Puff. [p569] ch. 5, sec. 7, 5 Cowen 558, 6 Wheat. 593; 20 Johns.R. 25; Hargrave's Law Tracts 36; 4 Gill & Johns. 1.
If this doctrine be sustainable as applied to this case, it is not perceived why an exception should be made in favor of the plaintiffs within the timbers of their bridge. It is admitted that their grant is good to this extent, and if the Legislature may grant a part of the eminent domain to this extent, why may it not go beyond it? If it may grant any part of the eminent domain, must not the extent of the grant be fixed at its discretion? In what other mode can it be determined, than by a judicial construction of the grant?
Acts of incorporation, when granted on a valuable consideration, assume the nature of contracts, and vested rights under them are no more subject to the legislative power than any other vested rights. In granting the charter to the Charles River Bridge Company, the Legislature did not divest itself of the power to grant similar charters. But the thing granted passed to the grantee, and can no more be resumed by the Legislature than it can resume the right to a tract of land which has been granted. When land is granted, the State can exercise no acts of ownership over it unless it be taken for public use, and the same rule applies to a grant for a bridge, a turnpike-road, or any other public improvement. It would assume a bold position to say that a subsequent Legislature may resume the ownership of a tract of land which had been granted at a preceding session, and yet the principle is the same in regard to vested rights under an act of incorporation. By granting a franchise, the State does not divest itself of any portion of its sovereignty, but to advance the public interests, one or more individuals are vested with a capacity to exercise the powers necessary to attain the desired object. In the case under consideration, the necessary powers to construct and keep up the Charles River Bridge were given to Thomas Russell and his associates. This did not withdraw the bridge from the action of the State sovereignty any more than it is withdrawn from land which it has granted. In both cases, the extent of the grant may become a question for judicial investigation and decision, but the rights granted are protected by the law.
It is insisted that as the complainants accepted the extension of their charter in 1792, under an express assertion of right by the Legislature to make new grants at its discretion, they cannot now object to the respondents' charter. In the acceptance of the extended charter, the complainants are bound only by the provisions of that [p570] charter. Any general declarations, which the Legislature may have made as regards its power to grant charters could have no more bearing on the rights of the complainants than on similar rights throughout the state. There was no reservation of this power in the prolonged charter, nor was there any general enactment on the subject. Of course, the construction of the charter must depend upon general and established principles.
It has been decided by the supreme Court of New York that, unless the act making the appropriation of private property for public use contain a provision of indemnity, it is void. Where property is taken under great emergencies by an officer of the government, he could hardly be considered, I should suppose, a trespasser though he does not pay for the property at the time it is taken. There can be no doubt that a compensation should be provided for in the same act which authorizes the appropriation of the property, or in a contemporaneous act. If, however, this be omitted, and the property be taken, the law unquestionably gives a remedy adequate to the damages sustained. No government which rests upon the basis of fixed laws, whatever form it may have assumed or wherever the sovereignty may reside, has asserted the right or exercised the power of appropriating private property to public purposes without making compensation.
In the 4th section of the act to establish the Warren Bridge, there is a provision that the corporation shall make compensation for any real estate that may be taken for the use of the bridge. The property of the complainants which was appropriated under the new charter cannot strictly be denominated real estate, and consequently this special provision does not reach their case. In this respect, the law must stand as though no such provision had been made. But was the complainants' property appropriated, under the charter granted to the respondents, for particular purposes? If the new bridge were deemed necessary by the Legislature to promote the general convenience, and the defendants were consequently authorized to construct it, and a part of the plaintiffs' franchise were granted to the defendants, it was an appropriation of private property for public use. It was as much an appropriation of private property for public use as would have been an appropriation of the ground of an individual for a turnpike or a railroad authorized by law.
By the charter of the Warren Bridge, as soon as the company should be reimbursed the money expended in the construction of the bridge, the expenses incurred in keeping it up, and five percent [p571] interest per annum on the whole amount, the bridge was to become the property of the state, and, whether these sums should be received or not, it was to become public property in six years from the time it was completed. The cost of construction, and the expenses, together with the five percent interest, have been reimbursed, and, in addition, a large sum has been received by the State from the tolls of this bridge. But it is now, and has been since March last, it is admitted, a free bridge.
In granting the charter of the Warren Bridge, the Legislature seem to recognise the fact that they were about to appropriate the property of the complainants for public uses, as they provide that the new company shall pay annually to the college, in behalf of the old one, £100. By this provision, it appears that the Legislature has undertaken to do what a jury of the country only could constitutionally do -- assess the amount of compensation to which the complainants are entitled. Here, then, is a law which not only takes away the property of the complainants, but provides, to some extent, for their indemnity. Whether the complainants have availed themselves of this provision or not does not appear, nor is it very material. The law in this respect does not bind them, and they are entitled to an adequate compensation for the property taken. These considerations belong to the case as it arises under the laws and Constitution of Massachusetts.
The important inquiry yet remains whether this Court can take jurisdiction in the form in which the case is presented. The jurisdiction of this Court is resisted on two grounds. In the first place, it is contended that the Warren Bridge has become the property of the state, and that the defendants have no longer any control over the subject, and also that the Supreme Court of Massachusetts have no jurisdiction over trusts.
The chancery jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts is admitted to be limited, but they are specially authorized, in cases of nuisances, to issue injunctions, and where this ground of jurisdiction is sustained, all the incidents must follow it. If the law incorporating the Warren Bridge Company was unconstitutional on the ground that it appropriated to public use the property of the complainants without making compensation, can there be any doubt that the Supreme Court of Massachusetts had jurisdiction of the case? And having jurisdiction, is it not clear that the whole matter in controversy may be settled by a decree that the defendants shall [p572] account to the complainants for moneys received by them after they had notice of the injunction.
It is also insisted that the State is the substantial party to this suit, and, as the Court has no jurisdiction against a sovereign State, that they can sustain no jurisdiction against those who act as agents under the authority of a State. That if such a jurisdiction were asserted by this Court, they would do indirectly, what the law prohibits them from doing directly. In the case of Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 9 Wheat. 733, this Court says,
the Circuit Courts of the United States have jurisdiction of a bill in equity, filed by the Bank of the United States for the purpose of protecting the bank in the exercise of its franchises, which are threatened with invasion and destruction under an unconstitutional State law, and as the State itself cannot be made a defendant, it may be maintained against the officers and agents of the State who are appointed to execute such law.
As regards the question of jurisdiction, this case, in principle, is similar to the one under consideration. Osborn acted as the agent or officer of the State of Ohio in collecting from the bank, under an act of the state, a tax or penalty unconstitutionally imposed, and if, in such a case, jurisdiction could be sustained against the agent of the state, why can it not be sustained against a corporation, acting as agent, under an unconstitutional act of Massachusetts, in collecting tolls which belong to the plaintiffs?
In the second place, it is contended that this Court cannot take jurisdiction of this case under that provision of the federal Constitution which prohibits any State from impairing the obligation of contracts, as the charter of the complainants has not been impaired. It may be necessary to ascertain definitely the meaning of this provision of the Constitution and the judicial decisions which have been made under it.
What was the evil against which the Constitution intended to provide by declaring that no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts? What is a contract, and what is the obligation of a contract? A contract is defined to be an agreement between two or more persons to do or not to do a particular thing. The obligation of a contract is found in the terms of the agreement, sanctioned by moral and legal principles. The evil which this inhibition on the States was intended to [p573] prevent is found in the history of our revolution. By repeated acts of legislation in the different states during that eventful period, the obligation of contracts was impaired. The time and mode of payment were altered by law, and so far was this interference of legislation carried that confidence between man and man was well nigh destroyed. Those proceedings grew out of the paper system of that day, and the injuries which they inflicted were deeply felt in the country at the time the Constitution was adopted. The provision was designed to prevent the States from following the precedent of legislation so demoralizing in its effects and so destructive to the commercial prosperity of a country. If it had not been otherwise laid down, in the case of Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch 125, I should have doubted whether the inhibition did not apply exclusively to executory contracts. This doubt would have arisen as well from the consideration of the mischief against which this provision was intended to guard as from the language of the provision itself.
An executed contract is the evidence of a thing done, and, it would seem, does not necessarily impose any duty or obligation on either party to do any act or thing. If a State convey land which it had previously granted, the second grant is void, not, it would seem to me, because the second grant impairs the obligation of the first, for, in fact, it does not impair it, but because, having no interest in the thing granted, the State could convey none. The second grant would be void in this country on the same ground that it would be void in England if made by the King. This is a principle of the common law, and is as immutable as the basis of justice. It derives no strength from the above provision of the Constitution, nor does it seem to me to come within the scope of that provision.
When we speak of the obligation of a contract, the mind seems necessarily to refer to an executory contract, to a contract under which something remains to be done and there is an obligation on one or both of the parties to do it. No law of a State shall impair this obligation by altering it in any material part. This prohibition does not apply to the remedy, but to the terms used by the parties to the agreement, and which fix their respective rights and obligations. The obligation, and the mode of enforcing the obligation, are distinct things. The former consists in the acts of the parties, and is ascertained by the binding words of the contract. The other emanates from the lawmaking power, which may be exercised at the discretion of the Legislature, within the prescribed limits of the [p574] constitution. A modification of the remedy for a breach of the contract does not, in the sense of the Constitution, impair its obligation. The thing to be done and the time of performance remain on the face of the contract in all their binding force upon the parties, and these are shielded by the Constitution from legislative interference.
On the part of the complainants, it is contended that, on the question of jurisdiction, as in reference to any other matter in controversy, the Court must look at the pleadings, and decide the point raised in the form presented. The bill charges that the act to establish the Warren Bridge purports to grant a right repugnant to the vested rights of the complainants, and that it impairs the obligation of the contract between them and the Commonwealth, and, being contrary to the Constitution of the United States, is void. In their answer, the respondents deny that the act creating the corporation of the Warren Bridge, impairs the obligation of any contract set forth in the bill of the complainants. The Court must look at the case made in the bill in determining any questions which may arise, whether they relate to the merits or the jurisdiction of the Court. But, in either case, they are not bound by any technical allegations or responses which may be found in the bill and answer. They must ascertain the nature of the relief sought, and the ground of jurisdiction, from the tenor of the bill.
In this case, the question of jurisdiction under the Constitution is broadly presented, and must be examined free from technical embarrassment. Chief Justice Parker, in the State court, says, in reference to the charter of the complainants,
the contract of the government is that this right shall not be disturbed or impaired, unless public necessity demand, and if it shall so demand, the grantees shall be indemnified.
Such a contract, he observes,
is founded upon the principles of our Constitution, as well as natural justice, and it cannot be impaired without a violation of the Constitution of the United States, and I think also it is against the principles of our State Constitution.
In the conclusion of his opinion, Mr. Justice Putam says, in speaking of the defendants' charter,
it impairs the obligation of the grants before made to the plaintiffs; it takes away their property, for public uses, without compensation, against their consent, and without a provision for a trial by jury; it is therefore void.
Mr. Justice Wilde and Mr. Justice Morton did not consider the [p575] new charter as having been granted either in violation of the Constitution of the state or of the United States.
In their decree, the Court say
that no property belonging to the complainants was taken and appropriated to public use, within the terms and meaning of the 10th article of the declaration of rights prefixed to the Constitution of this Commonwealth.
This decree can in no point of view be considered as fixing the construction of the Constitution of Massachusetts as it applies to this case. The decree was entered pro forma, and is opposed to the opinion of two members of the Court.
But if that Court had deliberately and unanimously decided that the plaintiffs' property had not been appropriated to public use under the Constitution of Massachusetts, still, where the same point becomes important on a question of jurisdiction before this Court, they must decide for themselves. The jurisdiction of this Court could in no respect be considered as a consequence of the decision of the above question by the State court, in whatever way the decree might have been entered. But no embarrassment can arise on this head, as the above decree was made, as a matter of form, to bring the case before this Court.
To sustain the jurisdiction of this Court, the counsel for complainants place great reliance upon the fact that the right, charged to be violated is held directly from the State, and they insist that there is an implied obligation on the State that it will do nothing to impair the grant. And that, in this respect, the complainants' right rests upon very different grounds from other rights in the community not held by grant directly from the State.
On the face of the complainants' grant, there is no stipulation that the Legislature will do nothing that shall injure the rights of the grantees; but it is said that this is implied, and on what ground, does the implication arise? Does it arise from the fact that the complainants are the immediate grantees of the State?
The principle is admitted that the grantor can do nothing that shall destroy his deed, and this rule applies as well to the State as to an individual. And the same principle operates with equal force on all grants, whether made by the State or individuals.
Does an implied obligation arise on a grant made by the State that the Legislature shall do nothing to invalidate the grant, which does not arise on every other grant or deed in the Commonwealth?
The Legislature is bound by the Constitution of the State, and it [p576] cannot be admitted that the immediate grantee of the State has a stronger guarantee for the protection of his vested rights against unconstitutional acts than may be claimed by any other citizen of the State. Every citizen of the State, for the protection of his vested rights, claims the guarantee of the Constitution. This, indeed, imposes the strongest obligation on the Legislature not to violate those rights. Does the Legislature give to its grantee, by virtue of its grant, an additional pledge that it will not violate the Constitution of the State? Such an implication, if it exist, can scarcely be considered as adding anything to the force of the Constitution. But this is not, it is said, the protection which the complainants invoke. In addition to their property's having been taken without compensation, they allege that their charter has been impaired by the Warren Bridge charter, and, on this ground, they ask the interposition of this Court.
The new charter does not purport to repeal the old one, nor to alter it in any material or immaterial part. It does not, then, operate upon the complainants' grant, but upon the thing granted. It has, in effect, taken the tolls of the complainants and given them to the public. In other words, under the new charter, all that is valuable under the charter of the complainants has been appropriated to public use.
It is urged that the Legislature did not intend to appropriate the property of the complainants; that there is nothing in the act of the Legislature which shows an intention, by the exercise of the eminent domain, to take private property for public use, but that, on the contrary, it appears the Warren Bridge charter was granted in the exercise of a legislative discretion, asserted and sustained by a majority of the Legislature.
In this charter, provision is made to indemnify the owners of real estate if it should be taken for the use of the bridge and the new company is required to pay, in behalf of the Charles River Bridge Company, one-half of the annuity to the college.
This would seem to show an intention to appropriate private property, if necessary, for the establishment of the Warren Bridge, and also an intention to indemnify the complainants to some extent for the injury done them. There could have been no other motive than this in providing that the new company should pay the hundred pounds.
But the Court can only judge of the intention of the Legislature [p577] by its language, and when, by its act, the franchise of the complainants is taken, and, through the instrumentality of the Warren Bridge Company, appropriated to the public use, it is difficult to say that the Legislature did not intent to do, what in fact it has done. Throughout the argument, the counsel for the complainants have most ably contended that their property had been taken and appropriated to the public use without making compensation, and that the Act was consequently void under the Constitution of Massachusetts.
If this be the character of the Act, if, under its provisions, the property of the complainants has been appropriated to public purposes, it may be important to inquire whether it can be considered as impairing the obligation of the contract within the meaning of the federal Constitution.
That a State may appropriate private property to public use is universally admitted. This power is incident to sovereignty, and there are no restrictions on its exercise except such as may be imposed by the sovereignty itself. It may tax at its discretion, and adapt its policy to the wants of its citizens, and use their means for the promotion of its objects under its own laws.
If an appropriation of private property to public use impairs the obligation of a contract within the meaning of the Constitution, then every exercise of this power by a State is unconstitutional. From this conclusion there is no escape, and whether compensation be made or not cannot vary the result.
The provision is not that no State shall pass a law impairing the obligation of contracts unless compensation be made, but the power is absolutely inhibited to a State. If the act of the State come within the meaning of the provision, the act is void. No condition which may be annexed to it, no compensation that can be made, can give it validity. It is in conflict with the supreme law of the land, and is therefore a nullity.
Can a State postpone the day fixed in an obligation for payment, or provide that a bond for the payment of money shall be discharged by the payment of anything else than money? This no one will contend can be done, because such an act would clearly impair the obligation of the contract, and no compensation which the State could give would make the act valid.
The question is asked whether the provision implied in the Constitution of Massachusetts that private property may be taken by making compensation is not impliedly incorporated in every [p578] contract made under it, and whether the obligation of the contract is not impaired when property is taken by the State without compensation?
Can the contract be impaired within the meaning of the federal Constitution when the action of the State is upon the property? The contract is not touched, but the thing covered by the contract is taken under the power to appropriate private property for public use. If taking the property impair the obligation of the contract within the meaning of the Constitution, it cannot be taken on any terms. The provision of the federal Constitution which requires compensation to be made when private property shall be taken for public use acts only upon the officers of the federal government. This case must be governed by the Constitution of Massachusetts.
Can a State in any form exercise a power over contracts which is expressly prohibited by the Constitution of the Union? The parties making a contract may embrace any conditions they please if the conditions do not contravene the law or its established policy. But it is not in the power of a State to impose upon contracts which have been made, or which may afterwards be made, any condition which is prohibited by the federal Constitution. No State shall impair the obligation of contracts. Now, if the act of a State in appropriating private property to public use come within the meaning of this provision, is not the act inhibited, and consequently void? This point would seem to be too plain for controversy. And is it not equally clear that no provisions contained in the Constitution of a State or in its legislative acts which subject the obligation of a contract to an unconstitutional control of the State can be obligatory upon the citizens of the State? If the State has attempted to exercise a power which the federal Constitution prohibits, no matter under what form the power may be assumed or what specious pretexts may be urged in favor of its exercise, the act is unconstitutional and void.
That a State may take private property for public use is controverted by no one. It is a principle which, from the foundation of our government, has been sanctioned by the practice of the States respectively, and has never been considered as coming in conflict with the federal Constitution.
This power of the State is admitted in the argument, but it is contended that the obligation of the contract has been impaired, as the property of the complainants has been taken without compensation. Suppose the Constitution of Massachusetts provided that no land [p579] should be sold for taxes without valuation, nor unless it shall sell for two-thirds of its value, due notice being given in some newspaper; and suppose a law of the Legislature should direct land to be sold for taxes without a compliance with these requisites; would this act impair the obligation of the grant by which the land is held within the meaning of the Constitution? The act would be clearly repugnant to the State Constitution, and, consequently, all proceedings under it would be void, but it would not be repugnant to the Constitution of the Union. And how does this case differ, in principle, from the one under consideration? In both cases, the power of the Legislature is unquestionable, but, by the Constitution of the State, it must be exercised in a particular manner, and if not so exercised, the act is void. Now if, in either case, the obligation of the contract under which the property is held is impaired, then it must follow that every act of a State Legislature which affects the right of private property, and which is repugnant to the State Constitution, is a violation of the federal Constitution.
Can the construction of the federal Constitution depend upon a reference to a State Constitution, and by which the act complained of is ascertained to be legal or illegal? By this doctrine, the act, if done in conformity to the State Constitution, would be free from objections under the federal Constitution, but if this conformity do not exist, then the act would not be free from such objection. This, in effect, would incorporate the State Constitution in, and make it a part of, the federal Constitution. No such rule of construction exists.
Suppose the Legislature of Massachusetts had taken the farm of the complainants for the use of a poor-house or an asylum for lunatics without making adequate compensation, or if, in ascertaining the damages, the law of the State had not been strictly pursued, could this Court interpose its jurisdiction, through the Supreme Court of the State, and arrest the power of appropriation? In any form in which the question could be made, would it not arise under the Constitution of the State, and be limited between citizens of the same State to the local jurisdiction? Does not the State Constitution, which declares that private property shall not be taken for public purposes without compensation, afford a safe guarantee to the citizens of the State against the illegal exercise of this power, a power essential to the wellbeing of every sovereign State, and which is always exercised under its own rules?
Had an adequate compensation been made to the complainants, [p580] under the charter of the Warren Bridge, would this question have been raised? Can anyone doubt that it was in the power of the Legislature of Massachusetts to take the whole of the complainants' bridge for public use by making compensation? Is there any power that can control the exercise of this discretion by the Legislature? I know of none, either in the State or out of it, but it must be exercised in subordination to the provisions of the Constitution of the State. And if it be not so exercised, the judicial authority of the State only, between its own citizens, can interpose and prevent the wrong or repair it in damages.
In all cases where private property is taken by a State for public use, the action is on the property, and the power, if it exist in the State, must be above the contract. It does not act on the contract, but takes from under it vested rights. And this power, when exercised by a State, does not, in the sense of the federal Constitution, impair the obligation of the contract. Vested rights are disturbed, and compensation must be made, but this is a subject which belongs to the local jurisdiction. Does this view conflict with the established doctrine of this Court? A reference to the points adjudged will show that it does not.
The case of Satterlee v. Mathewson, 2 Pet. 380, presented the following facts. Satterlee was the tenant of Mathewson, who claimed, at the time of the lease, under a Connecticut title, in Luzerne county, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, Satterlee purchased a Pennsylvania title for the same land. An ejectment was brought by Mathewson for the land, and the Court of Common Pleas decided that, as Satterlee was the tenant of the plaintiff, he could not set up a title against his landlord. On a writ of error, this judgment was reversed by the Supreme Court on the ground that the relation of landlord and tenant could not exist under a Connecticut title. Shortly afterwards, the Legislature of Pennsylvania passed a law that, under such a title, the relation of the landlord and tenant should exist, and the Supreme Court of the State having decided that this act was valid, the question was brought before this Court by writ of error. In their opinion, the Court say:
We come now to the main question in the cause. Is the act which is objected to repugnant to any provision of the Constitution of the United States? It is alleged to be particularly so because it impairs the obligation of the contract between the State of Pennsylvania and the plaintiff, who claims under her grant, &c.
The grant vested a fee simple in the grantee, with all the rights, [p581] privileges, &c.
Were any of these rights disturbed or impaired by the act under consideration? It does not appear from the record that they were in any instance denied, or ever drawn in question.
The objection most pressed upon the Court was that the effect of this act was to divest rights which were vested by law in Satterlee. "There is certainly no part of the Constitution of the United States," the Court say,
which applies to a State law of this description, nor are we aware of any decision of this or any Circuit Court which has condemned such a law upon this ground, provided its effect be not to impair the obligation of the contract.
And the Court add that in the case of Fletcher v. Peck, it is nowhere intimated that a State statute, which divests a vested right, is repugnant to the Constitution of the United States. There is a strong analogy between this case and the one under consideration.
The effect of the act of Pennsylvania was to defeat the title of Satterlee founded upon the grant of the State. It made a title valid which, in that very case, had been declared void by the Court, and which gave the right to Mathewson, in that suit, against the prior grant of the State. And this Court admit that a vested right was divested by the act, but they say it is not repugnant to the federal Constitution. The act did not purport to effect the grant, which was left, with its covenants, untouched, but it created a paramount right, which took the land against the grant.
In the case under consideration, the Warren Bridge charter does nor purport to repeal or in any way affect the complainants' charter. But, like the Pennsylvania act in its effects, it divested the vested rights of the complainants. Satterlee was not the immediate grantee of the State, but that could not affect the principle involved in the case. He claimed under the grant of the State, and the fact that there was an intermediate grantee between him and the State could not weaken his right.
In the case of Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch 87, the Legislature of Georgia attempted to annul its own grant. The law under which the first grant was issued was attempted to be repealed, and all grants under it were declared to be null and void by the second act. Here, the State acted directly upon the contract, and the case comes within the rule that, to impair the obligation of the contract, the State law must act upon the contract.
The act of the Legislature complained of in the case of Sturges v. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. 122, had a direct bearing upon the [p582] contract. The question was whether, under the bankrupt law of of New York, a debtor was discharged from his obligation by a surrender of his property. And so, in the case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 518, the question was whether the Legislature could, without the consent of the corporation, alter its charter in a material part, it being a private corporation.
In the case of Terrett v. Taylor, 9 Cranch 52, the uncontroverted doctrine is asserted that a Legislature cannot repeal a statute creating a private corporation, and thereby destroy vested rights.
The case of Green v. Biddle, 8 Wheat. 1, has also been cited to sustain the jurisdiction of the Court in this case. The Court decided in that case that the compact, which guarantied to claimants of land lying in Kentucky under titles derived from Virginia their rights as they existed under the laws of Virginia, prohibited the State of Kentucky from changing those rights. In other words, that Kentucky could not alter the compact. And when this Court were called on to give effect to the act of Kentucky, which they considered repugnant to the compact, they held the provisions of the compact paramount to the act.
After a careful examination of the questions adjudged by this Court, they seem not to have decided in any case that the contract is impaired within the meaning of the federal Constitution where the action of the State has not been on the contract. That though vested rights have been divested, under an act of a State Legislature, they do not consider that as impairing the grant of the State under which the property is held. And this, it appears, is the true distinction, and the one which has been kept in view in the whole current of adjudications by this Court under the above clause of the Constitution.
Had this Court established the doctrine that, where an act of a State Legislature affected vested rights held by a grant from the State, the act is repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, the same principle must have applied to all vested rights. For, as has been shown, the Constitution of a State gives the same guarantee of their vested rights to all its citizens, as to those who claim directly under grant from the State. And who can define the limit of a jurisdiction founded on this principle? It would necessarily extend over the legislative action of the State, and control to a fearful extent the exercise of their powers. [p583]
The spirit of internal improvement pervades the whole country. There is perhaps no State in the Union where important public works such as turnpike roads, canals, railroads, bridges, &c.,are not either contemplated or in a state of rapid progression. These cannot be carried on without the frequent exercise of the power to appropriate private property for public use. Vested rights are daily divested by this exercise of the eminent domain. And if, in all these cases, this Court can act as a court of supervision for the correction of errors, its power may be invoked in numberless instances. If to take private property impairs the obligation of the contract under which it is held, this Court may be called to determine in almost every case where the power is exercised, as well where compensation is made as where it is not made. For if this Court can take jurisdiction on this ground, every individual whose property has been taken has a constitutional right to the judgment of this Court whether compensation has been made in the mode required by the Constitution of the State.
In ascertaining the damages, the claimant has a right to demand a jury, and that the damages shall be assessed in strict conformity to the principles of the law. To revise these cases would carve out for this Court a new jurisdiction not contemplated by the Constitution and which cannot be safely exercised.
These are considerations which grow out of our admirable system of government that should lead the judicial tribunals both of the federal and State governments to mutual forbearance, in the exercise of doubtful powers. The boundaries of their respective jurisdictions can never, perhaps, be so clearly defined, on certain questions, as to free them from doubt. This remark is peculiarly applicable to the federal tribunals, whose powers are delegated, and consequently limited. The strength of our political system consists in its harmony, and this can only be preserved by a strict observance of the respective powers of the State and federal government. Believing that this Court has no jurisdiction in this case, although I am clear that the merits are on the side of the complainants, I am in favor of dismissing the bill for want of jurisdiction. [p584]