WESTERN UNION TEL. CO. V. NEW HOPE, 187 U. S. 419 (1903)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Western Union Tel. Co. v. New Hope, 187 U.S. 419 (1903)

Western Union Telegraph Company v. City of New Hope

No. 101

Argued December 2-3, 1902

Decided January 4, 1903

187 U.S. 419


An ordinance of the borough of New Hope, Pennsylvania, imposing an annual license fee of one dollar per pole and two dollars and a half per mile of wire on the telegraph, telephone and electric light poles within the limits of the borough, is not a tax on the property of the telegraph company owning the poles and wires, or on its transmission of messages, or on its receipts for such transmission, but is a charge in the enforcement of local governmental supervision, and as such is not, in itself, obnoxious to the commerce clause of the federal Constitution.

As the elements entering into such a charge are various, and as in this case the courts of Pennsylvania have decided that the charge imposed by the ordinance is reasonable in the circumstances and the ordinance valid, this Court does not feel justified in holding that conclusion to be so manifestly erroneous as to require revision.

By an ordinance passed in 1894, the Borough of New Hope, Pennsylvania, imposed an annual license fee of one dollar per pole and two dollars and a half per mile of wire on the telegraph, telephone, and electric light poles and wires within its limits. The Western Union Telegraph Company had constructed prior thereto, and had since maintained and operated, a line of telegraph poles and wires through the borough, and this was an action brought in the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks

Page 187 U. S. 420

County, in that state, against the company to recover license fees for the four years commencing with 1895. The case came on for trial before the court and a jury, and plaintiff put in evidence the ordinance in question, and it was agreed

"between the parties that, for the year beginning October 1, 1895, there were seventy-five poles and twenty miles of wire, and for the three succeeding years, beginning October 1, 1896, there were thirty-six poles and twelve miles of wire maintained by the defendant in said borough."

Plaintiff then rested, and defendant offered evidence tending to show that the wires were used as through wires for the transmission of messages between the different states and the United States and foreign countries; that the company had no office at New Hope which it operated itself, but that the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company handled the business there, and transferred it to the Western Union at Philadelphia; that no part of the business that went to or from New Hope went over these lines of wires and poles, and that the local business handed to the Western Union at Philadelphia amounted to from about seven to seven and one-half dollars per month. The evidence further tended to show that the cost value of its lines through New Hope was about $372, and that the cost of inspection, repairs, and maintenance of the plant of the company had averaged for thirteen years one dollar and forty-nine and one half cents per wire per annum; that, since October, 1894, the borough had not expended any money on account of the poles and wires of the company; that its expenditures were for repairing streets, street lamps, moderate sums in payment of official services, etc., and that, when on holidays the burgess saw fit to appoint a policeman, he often called on the constable, who was generally paid $2.50 per day. A lineman testified that, during those years, the borough never did anything, to his knowledge, "in the way of inspecting or repairing or removing or anything else in connection with the poles and wires of those telegraph companies." Defendant contended that the requirement of payment of the license fee in question amounted to a regulation of commerce, and that the ordinance was therefore void.

The court left it to the jury to find whether the license fee

Page 187 U. S. 421

exceeded what was reasonable under the circumstances. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and judgment was rendered thereon, which on error to the superior court was affirmed. 16 Pa.Super.Ct. 306. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to allow an appeal to that court.

Page 187 U. S. 424

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