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U.S. Supreme Court

Laurel Hill Cemetery v. San Francisco, 216 U.S. 358 (1910)

Laurel Hill Cemetery v. City and County of San Francisco

No. 100

Argued January 21, 24, 1910

Decided February 21, 1910

216 U.S. 358




Great caution must be exercised by any tribunal in overruling, or allowing to be overruled, the decision of the local authorities on question involving the health of the neighborhood, and this Court is doubly reluctant to interfere with deliberate decision of the highest court of a state confirming a specific determination on such a question previously reached by the body making the law.

Where opinion is divided as to whether a practice prohibited by a police ordinance is dangerous, and if the ordinance be valid if the danger be real, this Court will not overthrow the ordinance as an unconstitutional deprivation of property without due process of law or a denial of equal protection of the law merely because of adherence to the other belief. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11.

One not belonging to a class cannot raise the question of constitutionality of a statute as it affect that class.

Tradition and habits of the community count for more than logic in determining constitutionality of laws enacted for the public welfare under the police power.

An ordinance prohibiting burial of the dead within the limit of a populous city based on a determination of the city authorities that the practice is dangerous to life and detrimental to public health, and which has been sustained by the highest court of the state, will not be overthrown by this Court as an unconstitutional exertion of the police power of the state, and so held a to such an ordinance of San Francisco, California.

152 Cal. 464 affirmed.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

Page 216 U. S. 363

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an action to restrain the City and County of San Francisco and its officers from enforcing an ordinance forbidding the burial of the dead within the city and county limits. The allegations of the complaint are lengthy, but the material facts set forth are as follows: the plaintiff was incorporated in 1867 as a rural cemetery under a general act. The land in question had been dedicated as a burying ground, being at that time outside the city limits and a mile or two away from dwellings and business. It was conveyed to the plaintiff, and later a grant of the same was obtained from the city in consideration of $24,139.79, which sum the city retains. The land has been used as a cemetery ever since; forty thousand lots have been sold, and over two million dollars have been spent by the lot owners, and other large sums by the plaintiff, in preparing and embellishing the grounds. By the terms of the above-mentioned general statute the lots, after a burial in them, are inalienable, and descend to the heirs of the owner, and the plaintiff is bound to apply the proceeds of sales to the improvement, embellishment, and preservation of the grounds. There is land still unsold, estimated to be worth $75,000. There now are many dwellings near the cemetery, but it is alleged to be in no way injurious to health, or offensive, or otherwise an interference with the enjoyment of property or life. There also is an allegation that there are within the city large tracts, some of them vacant and some of them containing several hundred acres, in several of which interments could be made more than a mile distant from any inhabitants or highway. The ordinance in question begins with a recital that "the burial of the dead within the City and County of San Francisco is dangerous to life and detrimental to the public health," and goes on to forbid such burial under a penalty of fine, imprisonment, or both. The complaint sets up that it violates Article I, § 8, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Page 216 U. S. 364

The answer denied some of the above statements on the ground of ignorance, and categorically denied the averment as to the large vacant tracts available for burying within the city. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, the notice showing the ground to be that the complaint did not state a cause of action, but going on to say that the motion would be made upon all the papers on file. The motion was granted, and an exception to the judgment was affirmed by the supreme court of the state. 152 Cal. 464. As the state court and the arguments before us assumed the material allegations of the complaint to be true, we shall assume that the judgment was ordered upon the complaint without regard to the denials in the answer, although it was then on file.

The only question that needs to be answered, if not the only one before us, is whether the plaintiff's property is taken contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. In considering it, the allegation as to the large tracts available for burying purposes may be laid on one side. The plaintiff has no grievance with regard to them. The Winnebago, 205 U. S. 354, 205 U. S. 360. Moreover, it is said by the supreme court of the state that burial within the San Francisco City or County limits already was forbidden by statute except in existing cemeteries or such as might be established by the Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance now complained of, so that, as pointed out by the court, the ordinance in effect merely prohibited burials in existing cemeteries. It was therefore a specific determination by the lawmaking authority as to the relation of those cemeteries to their respective neighborhoods, and the question is whether the Court can say that it was wrong.

To aid its contention, and in support of the averment that its cemetery, although now bordered by many dwellings, is in no way harmful, the plaintiff refers to opinions of scientific men who have maintained that the popular belief is a superstition. Of these we are asked, by implication, to take judicial

Page 216 U. S. 365

notice, to adopt, them, and, on the strength of our acceptance, to declare the foundation of the ordinance a mistake and the ordinance void. It may be, in a matter of this kind, were the finding of fact is merely a premise to laying down a rule of law, that this Court has power to form its own judgment without the aid of a jury. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line, 211 U. S. 210, 211 U. S. 227. But whatever the tribunal, in questions of this kind, great caution must be used in overruling the decision of the local authorities or in allowing it to be overruled. No doubt this Court has gone a certain distance in that direction. Dobbins v. Los Angeles, 195 U. S. 223; Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45, 198 U. S. 58 et seq. But it has expressed through the mouth of the same judge who delivered the judgment in the case last cited the great reluctance that it feels to interfere with the deliberate decisions of the highest court of the state whose people are directly concerned. Welch v. Swasey, 214 U. S. 91, 214 U. S. 106. The reluctance must be redoubled when, as here, the opinion of that court confirms a specific determination concerning the same spot, previously reached by the body that made the law. See French v. Barber Asphalt Paving Co., 181 U. S. 324, 181 U. S. 341; Smith v. Worcester, 182 Mass. 232, 234-235.

But the propriety of deferring a good deal to the tribunals on the spot is not the only ground for caution. If every member of this bench clearly agreed that burying grounds were centers of safety, and thought the Board of Supervisors and the Supreme Court of California wholly wrong, it would not dispose of the case. There are other things to be considered. Opinion still may be divided, and if, on the hypothesis that the danger is real, the ordinance would be valid, we should not overthrow it merely because of our adherence to the other belief. Similar arguments were pressed upon this Court with regard to vaccination, but they did not prevail. On the contrary, evidence that vaccination was deleterious was held properly to have been excluded. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11, s.c., 183 Mass. 242. See

Page 216 U. S. 366

Otis v. Parker, 187 U. S. 606, 187 U. S. 608. Again, there may have been other grounds fortifying the ordinance besides those recited in the preamble. And yet again, the extent to which legislation may modify and restrict the uses of property consistently with the Constitution is not a question for pure abstract theory alone. Tradition and the habits of the community count for more than logic. Since, as before the making of constitutions, regulation of burial and prohibition of it in certain spots, especially in crowded cities, have been familiar to the western world. This is shown sufficiently by the cases cited by the court below -- e.g., Coates v. New York, 7 Cow. 585; Kincaid's Appeal, 66 Pa. 411; Sohier v. Trinity Church, 109 Mass. 1, 21; Carpenter v. Yeadon, 158 F.7d 6. The plaintiff must wait until there is a change of practice, or at least an established consensus of civilized opinion, before it can expect this Court to overthrow the rules that the lawmakers and the court of his own state uphold.

Judgment affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA took no part in the decision of this case.

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