HOUGHTON V. PAYNE, 194 U. S. 88 (1904)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Houghton v. Payne, 194 U.S. 88 (1904)

Houghton v. Payne

No. 372

Argued March 10, 1904

Decided April 11, 1904

194 U.S. 88


Contemporaneous construction is a rule of interpretation, but it is not an absolute one, and does not preclude an inquiry by the courts as to the original correctness of such construction. A custom of a department of the government, however long continued by successive officers, must yield to the positive language of the statute.

Periodical publications .as defined in the Post Office bill of March 3, 1879, do not include books complete in themselves and which have no connection with each other, simply because they are serially issued at stated intervals more than four times a year, bound in paper, bear dates of issue and numbered consecutively, and the Postmaster General can exclude

Page 194 U. S. 89

them from second class mail notwithstanding they have been heretofore transmitted as such by his predecessors in office.

The terms "periodical" and "periodical publication," as used in the Act of March 3, 1879, are used in their obvious and natural sense, and denote the well recognized and generally understood class of publications commonly called by the name of "periodical."

The provisions of § 14, Act of March 3, 1879, are not descriptive of the kind of publication which is to be admitted to the class of periodical publications provided for by §§ 7 and 10 of said act, but are express limitations added to the description is those sections.

The provisions of § 14 are not to be taken to determine what is a periodical publication, but to ascertain whether, being such a publication as is contemplated by § 10, it also answers the additional conditions there imposed.

The fact that publishers may have made contracts for the future delivery of their publications at prices founded on confidence in the continuance of the certificate of admission to the mails at second class rates, issued under a former administration of the Post Office Department, does not entitle them to an injunction restraining the present administration from ascertaining the true character of the publication and charging the legal rate accordingly.

This was a bill in equity originally filed in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia by the firm of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., against the Postmaster General, praying that a certain publication, known as the Riverside Literature Series, be entered and transmitted through the mails as second-class mail matter, and for an injunction to restrain the cancellation of a certain certificate of entry, previously issued, allowing such transmission.

The answer denied that the Riverside Literature Series constituted a periodical within the meaning and intent of the statute; that, although complying with the external characteristics and conditions of second-class mail matter, nevertheless, internally and in substance, they have not the characteristics of second-class matter, but have the peculiarities of books, and are in fact books.

The case was heard upon the pleadings and an exhibit of the series, and a decree rendered in accordance with the prayer of the bill. 31 Wash.L.R. 178. An appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, which reversed the decree of the supreme court and dismissed the bill. 31 Wash.L.R 390.

Page 194 U. S. 93

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