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PEOPLE STATE NEW YORK EX REL. NEW YORK ELECTRIC LINES COMPANY v. SQUIRE.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: May 2, 1892.

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK EX REL. NEW YORK ELECTRIC LINES COMPANY
v.
SQUIRE.

ERROR TO THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF THE CITY AND COUNTY OF NEW YORK.

Author: Lamar

[ 145 U.S. Page 186]

 MR. JUSTICE LAMAR, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

In the New York courts it was contended by the relator (1) that the aforesaid acts of the legislature of that State passed in 1885 and 1886 were not applicable to it because passed subsequently to the date of the alleged contract between it and the city, of April 16, 1883; (2) that if they were applicable to it, they were violative of the constitution of the State

[ 145 U.S. Page 187]

     of New York, for several reasons stated; and (3) that if applicable, they also violated the Constitution of the United States in certain particulars specified. All of the points made by the relator were decided adversely to it in the state courts.

In this court, necessarily, the contention that the acts in question are violative of the constitution of the State is not raised, as we would have no jurisdiction to consider such questions. The contention here on the part of the relator as gathered from the assignment of errors may be thus stated:

(1) The acts of 1885 and 1886 are not applicable to the relator, for the reason urged before the courts of the State; and

(2) If they be held to apply to the relator they are violative of the Constitution of the United States in two particulars: (a) They deprive the relator of its property without due process of law; and (b) they impair the obligation of the contract made between the relator and the city on the 16th of April, 1883, the date of the acceptance by it of the provisions of the city ordinance of the 10th of that month. All the other points raised may be arranged under one or the other of the above heads.

It will be convenient to consider the questions involved in this case in somewhat the above order. In no sense of the term do we think it can be safely averred that the acts of 1885 and 1886 are not applicable to the relator. The language of both of these acts clearly precludes such a construction. It is declared in the third section above quoted that "any company operating or intending to operate electrical conductors" in the city shall be obliged to file with the Board of Subway Commissioners a "map or maps, made to scale," showing the proposed plan of construction of its underground electrical system; and shall also be obliged "to obtain the approval by said board of said plan of construction so proposed" before any underground conduits shall be constructed. The board is further given the power to compel the construction of the electrical system in accordance with the plans approved by it, and to modify, from time to time, those plans, if the public interest should require it. This language is plain and unambiguous, and is broad enough to include any and every electrical company, irrespective

[ 145 U.S. Page 188]

     of the date of its incorporation, operating or desiring to operate, either directly or indirectly, any lines of wire for telegraphic, telephonic, or illuminating purposes within the cities to which it is applicable, the city of New York confessedly being the only one affected.

Neither can it be said that the acts of 1885 and 1886 have a retroactive effect, at least so far as the relator is concerned, since whatever rights it obtained under the ordinance of 1883, which it accepted as the basis of the contract it claims to have entered into, were expressly subject to regulation, in their use, by the highest legislative power in the State acting for the benefit of all interests affected by those rights and for the benefit of the public generally, so long as the relator's essential rights were not impaired or invaded. New Orleans Gas Company v. Louisiana Light Company, 115 U.S. 650; Stein v. Bienville Water Supply Company, 141 U.S. 67.

In order to determine whether the relator's essential rights have been invaded, or the contract which it claims to have entered into impaired, or its property taken away without due process of law, it will be necessary to ascertain what rights and property it possesses under the alleged contract of April 16, 1883. This contract, if such it be, must be gathered from the statutes of the State, under which the relator was organized, and the ordinances of the city (which it accepted) by which its privilege of constructing an underground electrical system was conferred. Recurring to the general telegraph act of 1848 and the acts amendatory thereof and supplemental thereto, the material provisions of which are set out above, it is observed that in none of those acts is there any unqualified right conferred upon any electrical company to construct its lines wherever, or in whatever manner it might choose. On the contrary, in every one of those acts provision is made for the security of the rights of the public in the use of the streets and high ways which may be used by the electric companies. Thus in the act of 1848 the proviso is that the electric lines "shall not be so constructed as to incommode the public use of said roads or highways, or injuriously interrupt the navigation of said waters." Like restrictions are carried into the acts of

[ 145 U.S. Page 1891853]

     and 1881; and the additional proviso is inserted in the act of 1881 that before any company shall be allowed to construct its lines in any city, village or town it must "first obtain from the common council of cities, the trustees of villages, or the commissioners of highways of towns permission to use the streets within such city, village or town for the purposes herein set forth." Here, then, in express terms, the power is reserved to regulate the use by the electrical companies of all the public highways of the State; and the rights conferred upon such companies are not absolute rights but the qualified right to construct their lines and operate them so as not to interfere with the public easements or the private rights of prior grantees.

Turning now to the ordinances of 1878 and 1883, the provisions of which were accepted by the relator on the 16th of April, 1883, which acceptance, it is claimed, constituted a contract between it and the city, we find that permission was given to the relator to lay its lines of wire underground, in and through the city, in accordance with certain specified plans of construction. These plans are elaborately described in those ordinances; the depth at which the wires are to be placed; the distance the conduits, test-boxes and connection vaults must be placed from underground gas, sewer, steam or water mains; the distance they are required to be from the curbstone; and the method employed in the construction, are all specified with great particularity. And the supervision and control of these matters of excavation and construction, by the ordinance of 1878, devolve upon the commissioner of public works. Conceding, then, for present purposes, without deciding that such was the case, that the relator had a contract with the city of New York for the laying of its wires, and the construction of its underground electrical system, the terms of the contract, as found in the statutes and the ordinances, gave the relator only the right to carry out the purposes of its organization in a manner which will in nowise interfere either with other underground systems and connections, such as gas, sewer, and water systems, already established and in operation, or with the rights of the public to use the streets, avenues and

[ 145 U.S. Page 190]

     highways of the city for the purposes of general travel. The rights of the public and the rights of prior occupants are to be respected and protected.

In what way, therefore, did the acts of 1885 and 1886 impair this contract? Did they take from the relator any rights which it theretofore possessed? Did they prohibit it from laying its lines and constructing its underground electrical system in accordance with the terms, and subject to the restrictions and conditions, of its said contract with the city? We think all these questions must be answered against the relator. The only thing that the acts of 1885 and 1886 did in this matter was to create a Board of Subway Commissioners whose duty it was to carry out the provisions of the ordinances of the city and the prior acts of the legislature relating to electric lines. The statutes of 1885 and 1886 did not prohibit the relator from carrying out the purposes of its organization or from laying its wires underground. They simply said to it, "Submit your plans and specifications of your electrical system to the Board of Subway Commissioners, who will determine whether they are in accordance with the terms of the ordinances giving you the right to enter and dig up the streets of the city." This the statutes had a right to do. It would be an anomaly in municipal administration, if every corporation that desired to dig up the streets of a city and make underground connections for sewer, gas, water, steam, electricity or other purposes, should be allowed to proceed upon its own theory of what were proper plans for it to adopt, and proper excavations to make. The evils that would follow from such a system of practice would be of great gravity to the public and would entail endless disputes and bickerings with prior parties having equal rights. The utmost that can be said against the acts of 1885 and 1886 is, that they transferred the supervision and control of the matters of excavation of the streets and the construction of underground electric systems from the commissioner of public works to the Board of Subway Commissioners. That is the sum total of the change effected. Not a right of the electrical companies was violated, and no contract was impaired. The expressly reserved power of the State or municipality to regulate

[ 145 U.S. Page 191]

     the use of the streets and highways in such manner as not to injuriously affect the public interests was merely transferred from one public functionary to another. The power was not enlarged; only the agency by which the supervising power of the State was to be exercised was changed. It requires no argument or citation of authorities to demonstrate that such proceedings did not impair the obligation of the relator's contract. If it did, every act of incorporation would involve a loss of authority by the legislature to change its public functionaries, or their respective powers and duties.

Independently, however, of the contractual relations of the relator, the statutes of 1885 and 1886 are so clearly an exercise of the general police powers of the State that we do not deem it necessary to add anything on that point to what was said by the Court of Appeals of New York. 107 N.Y. 593, 603, 604.

The contention that the statutes referred to deprive the relator of its property without due process of law is equally without foundation. This argument rests upon the assumption that the legislature could not require the electric companies to pay the salaries of the subway commissioners, as provided in section 7 of the act of 1885, as amended in 1886; and that this requirement of the statute is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This contention cannot be sustained under the principles of Charlotte &c. Railroad v. Gibbes, 142 U.S. 386. In that case it was held that a statute of South Carolina, requiring the salaries and expenses of the state railroad commission to be borne by the several corporations owning or operating railroads within the State, was not in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no State shall "deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

There are no other features of the case that call for special consideration.

Judgment affirmed.

18920502

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