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U.S. Supreme Court

Postal Telegraph-Cable Co. v. Taylor, 192 U.S. 64 (1904)

Postal Telegraph-Cable Company v. Taylor

No. 93

Argued December 11, 1903

Decided January 4, 1904

192 U.S. 64


Courts are not to be deceived by the mere phraseology in which an ordinance may be couched when it appears conclusively that it was passed for an unlawful purpose, and not for the one stated therein. A license fee cannot be imposed by ordinance of a municipality for purposes of inspection on telegraph companies doing an interstate business which is so far in excess of the expenses of inspection that it is plain that it was adopted not to repay such expenses, but as a means for raising revenue.

The plaintiff in error seeks to review the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which affirmed the judgment of the superior court of that state, which in its turn affirmed the judgment of the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County, in favor of the defendant in error in an action brought by it to recover the amount of a license fee imposed upon all telegraph, telephone, and electric light companies having poles and wires in the borough. The ordinance was of the same nature as that mentioned in the immediately preceding case of Postal Telegraph-Cable Company v. New Hope.

By the plaintiff's statement of its claim against the defendant, the telegraph company, it sought to recover from the company the sum of $220.50, including interest from January 31, 1898.

Page 192 U. S. 65

The defendant is a corporation engaged in interstate commerce by transmitting telegraphic communications among the several states, and by its affidavit of defense it averred that it was a company engaged in forwarding telegraphic dispatches among the several states, and was a corporation organized under the laws of the State of New York; that it had paid the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania all taxes which had by legislative enactment been levied upon the value of its poles and wires erected and maintained in the Borough of Taylor and elsewhere in the state; that it had accepted the act of Congress (14 Stat. 221) providing for the construction of telegraph lines over any post road of the United States; that it had never maintained, and does not now maintain, any office whatever in the Borough of Taylor, and that no telegraphic business of any kind is done or transacted by the defendant in that borough except the maintenance of the telegraphic lines and the transmission of telegraphic messages over the same from other places; that the ordinance in question is unreasonable, unjust, and excessive, and is illegal and void, because it is designed and intended to provide revenue by taxation for the general expenses of the borough, and that no other object than this exists, or has at any time existed, for the regulations imposed by the ordinance; that the borough is under no expense whatever in issuing the license required by the ordinance, and has not been at any time before, during, or after the period mentioned in the plaintiff's statement for which it makes demand, under any expense or charge of any kind whatsoever in inspecting and regulating the poles and wires; that the license fees imposed by the ordinance are not based upon the cost and expense to the borough for inspection and supervision or regulation of the defendant's lines and business, but the fees are imposed notwithstanding they are more than twenty times the amount that might have been or could possibly be incidental to such inspection, supervision, and regulation, together with all reasonable measures and precautions that might have been or possibly could be required to be taken by

Page 192 U. S. 66

the said borough for the safety of its citizens and the public, or which might have been or possibly could be incurred as expenses for the most careful, thorough, and efficient inspection and supervision that might have been made of the poles and wires of the defendant, although the plaintiff has not and does not maintain any inspection and supervision or care whatsoever over the poles and wires of the defendant, and has incurred no expense whatever on account thereof; that the borough is a sparsely populated district, and the land therein of small value, and most of the land along the highway on which the telegraph lines are constructed is not adapted to building purposes nor commercial use, and the highway is little traveled; that the borough is a coal mining community, and the buildings therein consist for the most part of the coal miners' cabins or houses of one or two stories, and the business buildings are scattered and consist mostly of small shops or stores; that the poles and wires thereon are located on the side of the highway and do not interfere in the slightest degree or to any extent with its use for all highway purposes, and do not interfere with any kind of traffic or with the operation of men or apparatus in extinguishing fires; that the line is not old, decayed, or worn out, but, on the contrary, is comparatively new and sound, and there is no danger of accident from the decay or breaking down of the poles and wires; that the license fees imposed by the ordinance are twenty times more than could be imposed under any power existing in the borough to make charges for all legal purposes; that the amount of the license fees imposed under the ordinance for each year largely exceeds the entire cost to the defendant itself of maintaining said line, including all repairs, reconstruction, cost of labor and material, and traveling expenses of the employees, and all expenses incurred by the defendant by a careful and efficient inspection and maintenance of such poles and wires; that the fees imposed by the ordinance are so excessive that, if every borough in the State of Pennsylvania in which defendant has a telegraph system should pass similar ordinances, the total amount collected

Page 192 U. S. 67

would exceed $100,000 per annum, and if the same kind of an ordinance should be passed in the other states by the municipalities in which the poles and lines of the company are placed, it could not pay the amount, but would become insolvent by reason of the fact that the expenses of operation, including the license fees, would be far in excess of the receipts of the defendant.

To this affidavit of defense the plaintiff excepted on the ground that it did not state any sufficient defense to plaintiff's cause of action, and also on the ground of res judicata, in that the same questions had been theretofore decided between the same parties in the courts of the state.

A rule for judgment was taken by the plaintiff for want of a sufficient affidavit of defense, and, upon hearing, the rule was made absolute (the facts set forth in the affidavit of defense being thereby assumed), and judgment for the plaintiff being entered, it was affirmed by the superior and supreme courts of Pennsylvania.

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