DAKOTA CENT. TELEPHONE CO. et al. v. STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA ex rel. PAYNE, Atty. Gen., et al.

250 U.S. 163

39 S.Ct. 507

63 L.Ed. 910

STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA ex rel. PAYNE, Atty. Gen., et al.

No. 967.

Argued May 5 and 6, 1919.

Decided June 2, 1919.

Mr.Solicitor General King, for plaintiffs in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 164-170 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Oliver E. Sweet, of Rapid City, S. D., for defendants in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 170-179 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Chief Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.


Involving as this case does the existence of state power to regulate, without the consent of the United States, telephone rates for business done wholly within the state over lines taken over into the possession of the United States and which by the exercise of its governmental authority it operates and controls, it does not in principle differ from the North Dakota case (Northern Pac. Ry. Co. v. State of North Dakota, 250 U. S. 135, 39 Sup. Ct. 502, 63 L. Ed. ——), just announced, where it was decided that under like conditions the state had no such power as to railroad rates. We consider this case as far as may be necessary, by a separate opinion, however, because the authority under which the control was exerted is distinct and because of the assumption in argument that this distinction begets a difference in the principles applicable.


In January, 1919, the state of South Dakota on the relation of its Attorney General and Railroad Commissioners sued the Dakota Central and other telephone companies doing business within the state to enjoin them from putting in effect a schedule of rates as to local business which it was alleged had been prepared by the Postmaster General and which it was averred the telephone companies were about to apply and enforce. It was charged that such rates were higher than those fixed by state authority and that the proposed action of the companies would be violative of state law, since the companies were under the duty to disregard the action of the Postmaster General and apply only the lawful state rates. The duty of the relators, as state officers, to prevent such wrong was alleged—a duty in which, it was further asserted, the state had a pecuniary interest springing from the expenditure which it was obliged to make for telephone services.


The companies answered, disclaiming all interest in the controversy on the ground that by contract, a copy of which with one of the defendant companies was annexed, their telephone lines and everything appurtenant thereto had passed into the possession and control of the United States and were being operated by it as a governmental agency. The answer also alleged that any connection of the companies through their officials or employes with the business was solely because of employment by the United States. The purpose to enforce the rates fixed by the Postmaster General was admitted and it was averred that the suit was one over which the court had no jurisdiction because it was against the United States.


The case was heard on the bill, answer, exhibits, and an admission by all the parties that the contract annexed to the answer was accurate and that a similar one had been made with all the other defendants.


Assuming that Congress had power to take over the telephone lines, that it had conferred that power upon the President, that the power had by the President been called into play conformably to the authority granted, and that the telephone lines were under the complete control of the United States, the court yet held that the state had the power to fix the local rates. In reaching this conclusion the o urt, assuming argumentatively that the right which the United States possessed gave at least the implied authority to fix all rates, nevertheless held that such power did not embrace intrastate rates because they had been carved out of the grant of power by Congress in conferring authority on the President. It was therefore decided that the President, the Postmaster General, and those operating the telephone service under his authority were mere wrongdoers in giving effect to the rates fixed by the Postmaster General and in refusing to enforce the conflicting intrastate rates made lawful by state law. The proceedings to prevent this wrong, it was held, did not constitute a suit against the United States and the injunction prayed was granted.


The appellees do not confine their contention to the question of statutory construction below decided. On the contrary, they press questions of power which the court below assumed and did not pass upon and insist upon a construction of the statute contrary to that which the court below took for granted as a prelude to the question of construction upon which is based its conclusion.


We must dispose of the issues thus insisted upon before testing the soundness of the interpretation of the statute upon which the court below acted, and for the purpose of considering them as well as the question of construction which the court below expressly decided, we state the case.


On the 16th of July, 1918, congress adopted a joint resolution (40 Stat. 904, c. 154 [Comp. St. 1918, § 3115 3/4 x, appendix]), providing:


'That the President during the continuance of the present war is authorized and empowered, whenever he shall deem it necessary for the national security or defense, to supervise or to take possession and assume control of any telegraph, telephone, marine cable, or radio system or systems, or any part thereof, and to operate the same in such manner as may be needful or desirable for the duration of the war, which supervision, possession, control, or operation shall not extend beyond the date of the proclamation by the President of the exchange of ratifications of the treaty of peace: Provided, that just compensation shall be made for such supervision, possession, control, or operation, to be determined by the President: * * * Provided further, that nothing in this act shall be construed to amend, repeal, impair, or affect existing laws or powers of the states in relation to taxation or the lawful police regulations of the several states, except wherein such laws, powers, or regulations may affect the transmission of government communications, or the issue of stocks and bonds by such system or systems.'


Six days thereafter, on the 22d of July, the President exerted the power thus given. Its exercise was manifested by a proclamation, which, after reciting the resolution of Congress, declared:


'It is deemed necessary for the national security and defense to supervise and take possession and assume control of all telegraph and telephone systems and to operate the same in such manner as may be needful or desirable.


'Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, under and by virtue of the powers vested in me by the foregoing resolution, and by virtue of all other powers thereto me enabling, do hereby take possession and assume control and supervision of each and every telegraph and telephone system, and every part thereof, within the jurisdiction of the United States, including all equipment thereof and appurtenances thereto whatsoever and all materials and supplies.


'It is hereby directed that the supervision, possession, control, and operation of such telegraph and telephone systems hereby by me undertaken shall be exercised by and through the Postmaster General. * * *'


The proclamation gave to the Postmaster General plenary power to exert his authority to the extent he might deem desirable through the existing owners, managers, directors or officers of the telegraph or telephone lines, andi t was provided that their services might continue as permitted by general or special orders of the Pestmaster General. It was declared that——


'From and after twelve o'clock midnight on the 31st day of July, 1918, all telegraph and telephone systems included in this order and proclamation shall conclusively be deemed within the possession and control and under the supervision of said Postmaster General without further act or notice.'


Under this authority the Postmaster General assumed possession and control of the telephone lines and operated the same. On the 31st day of October, 1918 , the President through the Postmaster General, in the exertion of the duty imposed upon him by the resolution of Congress to make compensation, concluded a contract with the telephone companies of the most comprehensive character covering the whole field while the possession, control and operation by the United States continued. By its terms stipulated amounts were to be paid as consideration for the possession, control and operation by the United States and the earnings resulting from such operation became the property of the United States. Although concluded in October, 1918, by stipulation the contract related back to the time when the President took over the property.


Following this, by authority of the President, the Postmaster General fixed a general schedule of rates and it was the order to put this schedule in effect which gave rise to the suit, the trial, and the resulting judgment which we have now under consideration.


That under its war power Congress possessed the right to confer upon the President the authority which it gave him we think needs nothing here but statement, as we have disposed of that subject in the North Dakota railroad rate case. And the completeness of the war power under which the authority was exerted and by which completeness its exercise is to be tested suffices, we think, to dispose of the many other contentions urged as to the want of power in Congress to confer upon the President the authority which it gave him.


The proposition that the President in exercising the power exceeded the authority given him is based upon two considerations: First, because there was nothing in the conditions at the time the power was exercised which justified the calling into play of the authority; indeed, the contention goes further and assails the motives which it is asserted induced the exercise of the power. But as the contention at best concerns not a want of power, but a mere excess or abuse of discretion in exerting a power given, it is clear that it involves considerations which are beyond the reach of judicial power. This must be since, as this court has often pointed out, the judicial may not invade the legislative or executive departments so as to correct alleged mistakes or wrongs arising from asserted abuse of discretion.


The second contention, although it apparently rests upon the assertion that there was an absence of power in the President to exert the authority to the extent to which he did exert it, when it is correctly understood amounts only to an asserted limitation on the power granted based upon a plain misconception of the terms of the resolution of Congress by which the power was given. In other words, it assumed that by the resolution only a limited power as to the telephone lines was conferred upon the President, and hence that the assumption by him of complete possession and control was beyond the authority possessed. But although it may be conceded that there is some ground for contending, in view of the elements of authority enumerated in the resolution of Congress, that there was power given to take less than the whole if the President deemed it best to do so, we are of opinion that authority was conferred as to all the enumerated elements and that there was hence a right in the President to take complete possession and control to enable the full operation of the lines embraced in the authority. The contemporaneous official steps taken to give effec to the resolution, the proclamation of the President, the action of the Postmaster General under the authority of the President, the contracts made with the telephone companies in pursuance of authority to fix their compensation, all establish the accuracy of this view, since they all make it clear that it was assumed that power to take full control was conferred and that it was exerted so as to embrace the entire business and the right to the entire revenues to arise from the act of the United States in carrying it out. Indeed, Congress in subsequently dealing with the situation thus produced would seem to have entertained the same conception as to the scope of the power conveyed by the resolution and dealt with it from that point of view. Act Oct. 30, 1918, c. 197, 40 Stat. 1017.


This brings us to the proposition upon which the court based its conclusion, that is, that although complete possession, exclusive control, and the right to all the revenues derived from the operation of the business were in the United States as the result of the resolution, the proclamation, and the contracts, yet as to intrastate earnings, the state power remained to 'incumber' the authority of the United States, because that situation necessarily resulted from the terms of the congressional resolution.


This superficially was based on an interpretation of the resolution, but in substance was caused by the application to the clause of the resolution interpreted, of the erroneous presumption as to the continuance of state power dealt with in the North Dakota case. Let us see if this is not necessarily so. The provision dealt with was the proviso of the resolution which in the first place saved 'the lawful police regulations of the several states' and therefore subjected the control of the United States to the operation of such power, and in the second place prohibited the states during the United States control from exerting authority as to the issue of stocks and bonds.


It was conceded that the words 'police power' were susceptible of two significations, a comprehensive one embracing in substance the whole field of state authority and the other a narrower one including only state power to deal with the health, safety and morals of the people. Although it was admitted that the reservation, considered intrinsically, was not susceptible of being interpreted in the broader of the two lights, it was held that it was necessary to so interpret it because of the clause of the proviso prohibiting the states from legislating concerning the issue of stocks and bonds by the companies during the United States control. The reasoning was this: It was inconceivable, it was said, that the subject, stocks and bonds, should have been withdrawn from state control by an express prohibition unless that subject would have been under state control in the absence of the prohibition, a result which could only exist by giving the saving clause as to police power its widest significance. But the fact that the rule of construction applied had the result of incorporating in the act of Congress unlimited state authority merely as the result of a prohibition by Congress against the exertion of state power in a specific instance, in and of itself admonishes of the incorrectness of the rule. But its want of foundation is established by two further considerations: (1) Because it causes the provision as to stocks and bonds, which was plainly enacted to preserve the financial control of the United States over the corporations, to limit if not destroy such control; (2) because by converting the prohibition against state power into an affirmative and comprehensive grant of that power, it so interprets the act as to limit the grant of authority which the act beyond doubt gave to the United States. These considerations not only show the mistake of the interpretation, but also point out the confusion and conflict which must necessarily arise from giving effect to the mistaken presumption of the continuance of state power to which we hv e previously referred. Inherently the power of a state to fix rates to be charged for intrastate carriage or transmission is in its nature but derivative, since it arises from the depends upon the duty of those engaged in intrastate commerce to charge only reasonable rates for the services by them rendered, and the authority possessed by the state to exact a compliance with that duty. Conceding that it was within the power of Congress, subject to constitutional limitations, to transplant the state power as to intrastate rates into a sphere where it, Congress, had complete control over telephone lines because it had taken possession of them and was operating them as a governmental agency, it must follow that in such sphere there sould be nothing upon which the state power could be exerted except upon the power of the United States; that is, its authority to fix rates for the services which it was rendering through its governmental agencies. The anomaly resulting from such conditions adds cogency to the reasons by which in the North Dakota case the error in presuming the continuance of state power in such a situation was pointed out and makes it certain that such a result could be brought about only by clear expression or at least from the most convincing implication.


This disposes of the case, but before leaving it we observe that we have not overlooked in its consideration the references made to proceedings in Congress concerning the resolution at the time of its passage, and further, that we have also considered all the suggestions made in the many and voluminous briefs filed on behalf of various state authorities and individuals having interests in suits pending elsewhere, concerning the construction of the resolution. In saying this, however, we must except suggestions as to want of wisdom or necessity for conferring the power given, or as to the precipitate or uncalled for exertion of the power as conferred, from all of which we have turned aside because the right to consider them was wholly beyond the sphere of judicial authority.


In view of our conclusion we shall in this case, as we did in the previous one and for the reasons therein stated, content ourselves with reversing the judgment below upon the merits with directions for such further proceedings as may be not inconsistent with this opinion.


And it is so ordered.


Mr. Justice BRANDEIS dissents.

The following state regulations pages link to this page.