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U.S. Supreme Court

Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co., 206 U.S. 230 (1907)

Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Company

No. 5, Original

Argued February 25, 26, 1907

Decided May 13, 1907

206 U.S. 230



When the states by their union made the forcible abatement of outside nuisances impossible to each, they did not thereby agree to submit to whatever might be done. They retained the right to make reasonable demands on the grounds of their still remaining quasi-sovereign interests, and the alternative to force a suit in this Court.

This Court has jurisdiction to, and at the suit of a state will, enjoin a corporation, citizen of another state, from discharging over its territory noxious fumes from works in another state where it appears that those fumes cause and threaten damage on a considerable scale to the forests and vegetable life, if not to health, within the plaintiff's state.

A suit brought by a state to enjoin a corporation having its work in another state from discharging noxious gases over its territory is not the same as one between private parties, and although the elements which would form the basis of relief between private parties are wanting, the state can maintain the suit for injury in a capacity as quasi-sovereign, in which capacity it has an interest independent of and behind its citizens in all the earth and air within its domain, and whether insisting upon bringing such a suit results in more harm than good to its citizen, many of whom may profit through the maintenance of the works causing the nuisance, is for the state itself to determine.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

Page 206 U. S. 236

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a bill in equity filed in this Court by the State of Georgia, in pursuance of a resolution of the legislature and by direction of the governor of the state, to enjoin the defendant copper companies from discharging noxious gas from their works in Tennessee over the plaintiff's territory. It alleges that, in consequence of such discharge, a wholesale destruction of forests, orchards, and crops is going on, and other injuries are done and threatened in five counties of the state. It alleges also a vain application to the State of Tennessee for relief. A preliminary injunction was denied; but, as there was ground to fear that great and irreparable damage might be done, an early day was fixed for the final hearing, and the parties were given leave, if so minded, to try the case on affidavits. This has been done without objection, and, although the method would be unsatisfactory if our decision turned on any nice question of fact, in the view that we take we think it unlikely that either party has suffered harm.

Page 206 U. S. 237

The case has been argued largely as if it were one between two private parties; but it is not. The very elements that would be relied upon in a suit between fellow-citizens as a ground for equitable relief are wanting here. The state owns very little of the territory alleged to be affected, and the damage to it capable of estimate in money, possibly at least, is small. This is a suit by a state for an injury to it in its capacity of quasi-sovereign. In that capacity, the state has an interest independent of and behind the titles of its citizens, in all the earth and air within its domain. It has the last word as to whether its mountains shall be stripped of their forests and its inhabitants shall breathe pure air. It might have to pay individuals before it could utter that word, but with it remains the final power. The alleged damage to the state as a private owner is merely a makeweight, and we may lay on one side the dispute as to whether the destruction of forests has led to the gullying of its roads.

The caution with which demands of this sort on the part of a state for relief from injuries analogous to torts must be examined is dwelt upon in Missouri v. Illinois, 200 U. S. 496, 200 U. S. 520-521. But it is plain that some such demands must be recognized, if the grounds alleged are proved. When the states by their union made the forcible abatement of outside nuisances impossible to each, they did not thereby agree to submit to whatever might be done. They did not renounce the possibility of making reasonable demands on the ground of their still remaining quasi-sovereign interests, and the alternative to force is a suit in this Court. Missouri v. Illinois, 180 U. S. 208, 180 U. S. 241.

Some peculiarities necessarily mark a suit of this kind. If the state has a case at all, it is somewhat more certainly entitled to specific relief than a private party might be. It is not lightly to be required to give up quasi-sovereign rights for pay; and, apart from the difficulty of valuing such rights in money, if that be its choice, it may insist that an infraction of them shall be stopped. The states, by entering the Union, did not sink

Page 206 U. S. 238

to the position of private owners, subject to one system of private law. This Court has not quite the same freedom to balance the harm that will be done by an injunction against that of which the plaintiff complains, that it would have in deciding between two subjects of a single political power. Without excluding the considerations that equity always takes into account, we cannot give the weight that was given them in argument to a comparison between the damage threatened to the plaintiff and the calamity of a possible stop to the defendants' business, the question of health, the character of the forests as a first or second growth, the commercial possibility or impossibility of reducing the fumes to sulphuric acid, the special adaptation of the business to the place.

It is a fair and reasonable demand on the part of a sovereign that the air over its territory should not be polluted on a great scale by sulphurous acid gas, that the forests on its mountains, be they better or worse, and whatever domestic destruction they have suffered, should not be further destroyed or threatened by the act of persons beyond its control, that the crops and orchards on its hills should not be endangered from the same source. If any such demand is to be enforced this must be notwithstanding the hesitation that we might feel if the suit were between private parties, and the doubt whether, for the injuries which they might be suffering to their property, they should not be left to an action at law.

The proof requires but a few words. It is not denied that the defendants generate in their works near the Georgia line large quantities of sulphur dioxide which becomes sulphurous acid by its mixture with the air. It hardly is denied, and cannot be denied with success, that this gas often is carried by the wind great distances and over great tracts of Georgia land. On the evidence, the pollution of the air and the magnitude of that pollution are not open to dispute. Without any attempt to go into details immaterial to the suit, it is proper to add that we are satisfied, by a preponderance of evidence, that the sulphurous fumes cause and threaten damage on so considerable

Page 206 U. S. 239

a scale to the forests and vegetable life, if not to health, within the plaintiff state, as to make out a case within the requirements of Missouri v. Illinois, 200 U. S. 496. Whether Georgia, by insisting upon this claim, is doing more harm than good to her own citizens is for her to determine. The possible disaster to those outside the state must be accepted as a consequence of her standing upon her extreme rights.

It is argued that the state has been guilty of laches. We deem it unnecessary to consider how far such a defense would be available in a suit of this sort, since, in our opinion, due diligence has been shown. The conditions have been different until recent years. After the evil had grown greater in 1904, the state brought a bill in this Court. The defendants, however, already were abandoning the old method of roasting ore in open heaps and it was hoped that the change would stop the trouble. They were ready to agree not to return to that method, and, upon such an agreement's being made, the bill was dismissed without prejudice. But the plaintiff now finds, or thinks that it finds, that the tall chimneys in present use cause the poisonous gases to be carried to greater distances than ever before, and that the evil has not been helped.

If the State of Georgia adheres to its determination, there is no alternative to issuing an injunction, after allowing a reasonable time to the defendants to complete the structures that they now are building, and the efforts that they are making to stop the fumes. The plaintiff may submit a form of decree on the coming in of this Court in October next.

Injunction to issue.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, concurring:

The State of Georgia is, in my opinion, entitled to the general relief sought by its bill, and therefore I concur in the result. With some things, however, contained in the opinion, or to be implied from its language, I do not concur. When the Constitution gave this Court original jurisdiction in cases

Page 206 U. S. 240

"in which a state shall be a party," it was not intended, I think, to authorize the court to apply in its behalf any principle or rule of equity that would not be applied, under the same facts, in suits wholly between private parties. If this were a suit between private parties, and if, under the evidence, a court of equity would not give the plaintiff an injunction, then it ought not to grant relief, under like circumstances, to the plaintiff, because it happens to be a state, possessing some powers of sovereignty. Georgia is entitled to the relief sought not because it is a state, but because it is a party which has established its right to such relief by proof. The opinion, if I do not mistake its scope, proceeds largely upon the ground that this Court, sitting in this case as a court of equity, owes some special duty to Georgia as a state, although it is a party, while, under the same facts, it would not owe any such duty to the plaintiff if an individual.

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