SOUTHERN RAILWAY CO. V. KING, 217 U. S. 524 (1910)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Southern Railway Co. v. King, 217 U.S. 524 (1910)

Southern Railway Co. v. King

No. 140, 141

Argued April 6, 7, 1910

Decided May 16, 1910

217 U.S. 524




The right to regulate interstate commerce is exclusively vested in Congress, and the states cannot pass any law directly regulating such commerce; but the states may, in the exercise of the police power, pass laws in the interest of public safety which do not interfere directly with the operations of interstate commerce.

The constitutionality of a state statute regulating operation of railroad trains depends upon its effect on interstate commerce, and, in the absence of congressional regulation on the subject, states may make reasonable regulations as to the manner in which trains shall approach, and give notice of their approach to, dangerous crossings, so long as they are not a direct burden upon interstate commerce.

One who would strike down a statute as unconstitutional must show that it affects him injuriously and actually deprives him of a constitutional right.

Proof must conform to the allegations, and, without proper allegations, testimony cannot be admitted.

A pleading must state facts, and not mere conclusions, and the want of

Page 217 U. S. 525

essential definite allegations renders a pleading subject to demurrer. This general rule is also the practice in Georgia.

General statements that a statute is in violation of the commerce clause of the federal Constitution, is a direct burden on interstate commerce, and impairs the usefulness of the pleader's facilities for that purpose are mere conclusions, and not statements of the facts which make the operation of the statute unconstitutional, and do not raise any defense to a cause of action based on a violation of such statute.

160 F.3d 2 affirmed.

The facts, which involve the constitutionality of a statute of Georgia regulating the crossing of highways by railroad trains, are stated in the opinion.

Page 217 U. S. 530

MR. JUSTICE DAY delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases were tried together in the circuit court, and were so considered in the circuit court of appeals, and will be so disposed of here. In No. 140, Josephine King brought her suit in the Superior Court of Habersham County, Georgia, to recover $10,000 against the Southern Railway Company for the wrongful death of her husband, killed while riding in a buggy at a crossing of the defendant's railway. The alleged negligence was the violation of a certain statute of the State of Georgia in that the company failed to check and to keep checking

Page 217 U. S. 531

the speed of its train while approaching the crossing at which her husband was killed.

In case No. 141, the action was brought by Inez King, by her next friend, Josephine King, in the same court, because of injuries received at the same time and place and in alleged violation of the same statute. Both cases were removed to the United States Circuit Court for the Eastern Division of the Northern District of Georgia. Upon trial, verdicts and judgments was rendered against the railroad company. These judgments were affirmed in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. 8 160 F.3d 2. The cases were then brought here by writs of certiorari.

The federal question presented concerns the validity of the statute of the State of Georgia for violation of which a recovery was had, it being the contention of the petitioner that the statute is in violation of the interstate commerce clause of the federal Constitution in that it is an illegal burden upon and a regulation of interstate commerce. This statute is found in § 2222 of the Civil Code of Georgia, and reads as follows:

"There must be fixed on the line of said roads at the distance of 400 yards from the center of each of said crossings, and on each side thereof, a post, and the engineer shall be required, whenever he shall arrive at either of said posts, to blow the whistle of the locomotive until it arrives at the public road, and to simultaneously check and keep checking the speed thereof, so as to stop in time should any person or thing be crossing said track on said road."

It has been frequently decided in this Court that the right to regulate interstate commerce is, by virtue of the federal Constitution, exclusively vested in the Congress of the United States. The states cannot pass any law directly regulating such commerce. Attempts to do so have been declared unconstitutional in many instances,

Page 217 U. S. 532

and the exclusive power in Congress to regulate such commerce uniformly maintained. While this is true, the rights of the states to pass laws not having the effect to regulate or directly interfere with the operations of interstate commerce, passed in the exercise of the police power of the state, in the interest of the public health and safety, have been maintained by the decisions of this Court. We may instance some of the cases of this nature in which statutes have been held not to be a regulation of interstate commerce, although they may affect the transaction of such commerce among the states. In Smith v. Alabama, 124 U. S. 465, it was held to be within the police power of the state to require locomotive engineers to be examined and licensed. In New York, N.H. & H. R. Co. v. New York, 165 U. S. 628, a law regulating the heating of passenger cars and requiring guard posts on bridges was sustained. In Lake Shore R. Co. v. Ohio, 173 U. S. 286, it was held to be a valid enactment to require railway companies operating within the State of Ohio to cause three of its regular passenger trains to stop each way daily at every village containing over 3,000 inhabitants. In Erb v. Morasch, 177 U. S. 584, it was held that a municipal ordinance of Kansas City, Kansas, although applicable to interstate trains, which restricted the speed of all trains within the city limits to six mile an hour, was a valid exertion of the police power of the state. In the case of Crutcher v. Kentucky, 141 U. S. 47, this Court said:

"It is also within the undoubted province of the state legislature to make regulations with regard to the speed of railroad trains in the neighborhood of cities and towns; with regard to the precautions to be taken in the approach of such trains to bridges, tunnels, deep cuts and sharp curves, and, generally, with regard to all operations in which the lives and health of people may be endangered, even though such regulations affect, to some extent, the

Page 217 U. S. 533

operations of interstate commerce. Such regulations are eminently local in their character, and, in the absence of congressional regulations over the same subject, are free from all constitutional objections, and unquestionably valid."

On the other hand, it has been held to be an illegal attempt to regulate interstate commerce to require interstate passenger trains to stop at county seats when adequate train service had already been provided for local traffic. C. C.C. & St.L. R. Co. v. Illinois, 177 U. S. 514. In Mississippi Railroad Commission v. Illinois Central Railroad Company, 203 U. S. 335, it was held that orders of a state railroad commission which directed the stopping of interstate trains at certain local stations, where adequate transportation facilities had already been provided, was an unlawful attempt to regulate interstate commerce, and repugnant to the federal Constitution.

Applying the general rule to be deduced from these cases to such regulations as are under consideration here, it is evident that the constitutionality of such statute will depend upon their effect upon interstate commerce. It is consistent with the former decisions of this Court, and with a proper interpretation of constitutional rights, at least in the absence of congressional action upon the same subject matter, for the state to regulate the manner in which interstate trains shall approach dangerous crossings, the signals which shall be given, and the control of the train which shall be required under such circumstances. Crossings may be so situated in reference to cuts or curves as to render them highly dangerous to those using the public highways. They may be in or near towns or cities, so that to approach them at a high rate of speed would be attended with great danger to life or limb. On the other hand, highway crossings may be so numerous and so near together that to require interstate trains to slacken speed indiscriminately at all such

Page 217 U. S. 534

crossings would be practically destructive of the successful operation of such passenger trains. Statutes which require the speed of such trains to be checked at all crossings so situated might not only be a regulation, but also a direct burden upon interstate commerce, and therefor beyond the power of the state to enact.

It is the settled law of this Court that one who would strike down a state statute as violative of the federal Constitution must bring himself, by proper averments and showing, within the class as to whom the act thus attacked is unconstitutional. He must show that the alleged unconstitutional feature of the law injures him, and so operates as to deprive him of rights protected by the federal Constitution. Tyler v. The Judges, 179 U. S. 405; Turpin v. Lemon, 187 U. S. 51, 187 U. S. 60; Hooker v. Burr, 194 U. S. 415; Hatch v. Reardon, 204 U. S. 152, 204 U. S. 160.

In the case at bar, the federal question was sought to be raised by an amendment to the answer. The answer originally filed was general in its nature, and did not set up the defense of violation of the federal Constitution. The amendment filed set up that the railroad company was engaged in interstate commerce, and, at the time of the injury complained of, was operating an interstate train, and after setting up the statute of the State of Georgia for a violation of which the company was sued, averred that it was inoperative as to the defendant's train, because in violation of § 8, Article I, of the federal Constitution, giving Congress the power to regulate commerce, and further stated:

"Your defendant further shows that the statute of Georgia is not a reasonable regulation of the police power of the state to secure the safety of passengers, but that the statute is a direct burden on and impedes the interstate traffic being done by this defendant, and impairs the usefulness of its facilities for such traffic."

"Defendant further shows that it is impossible to observe

Page 217 U. S. 535

said statute and carry the mails as defendant is required to carry them under the contract it has with the government, and it is likewise impossible to do an interstate business and at the same time comply with the terms of said statute."

"Wherefore it says that said statute is inoperative as to it, and it should not be required to comply with the same on its interstate line of railroad."

"All which it stands ready to verify, and prays that it be hence discharged with its reasonable cost."

On oral demurrer to this amendment to the answer, the same was held insufficient, and it was dismissed. Petitioner's counsel further sought to raise the federal question by an offer of proof at the trial by an engineer of the company, as follows:

"I expect to prove that, between the South Carolina line and Atlanta, there are practically one hundred road crossings, or between eighty-five and one hundred public road crossings; that the distance is 101 miles; that the crossings in some localities are very close together, and within a few hundred yards of each other, and at others farther apart, but, on the average, making a crossing to the mile, almost. We expect to show further that, to observe the statute, and check and keep checking, so as to have a train under control, and to stop should any person or thing be on the crossing, would consume from five to ten minutes for each crossing, dependent, of course, upon the weight and length of the train and the grade; but it would make an average of seven or eight minutes. We wish to show that this train was made up and known as No. 39, the vestibule train which runs from the City of Washington, through the States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; that it was carrying passengers from one state to another, also carrying an express car with freight on it from one state to another. We wish and expect to show that obedience

Page 217 U. S. 536

to that crossing act would hinder, and practically prevent, interstate business being done by the defendant railroad. We wish to show the condition I have just stated all existed at the time this accident occurred, on the 11th of October, 1903."

This testimony was excluded, and an exception was taken. It is apparent from this outline of the state of the record that, when this testimony was offered, there was no answer on file in the case under which it would be competent. A demurrer had been sustained to the amendment to the answer, and the case stood upon the complaint and the general issue filed by the defendant. It is elementary that the proof must conform to the allegations, and that, without proper allegations, testimony cannot be admitted. We are then remitted to the question, did the court err in sustaining the demurrer to the amended answer? The circuit court of appeals held, and we think correctly, that an inspection of that document shows that it did not contain a proper averment of the facts, which would show that the operation of the statute in controversy was such as to unlawfully regulate interstate commerce, and therefore deprive the railway company of its constitutional right to carry on such commerce unhampered by such illegal restrictions. The amended answer contains the general statement that the statute is in violation of the commerce clause of the Constitution, and a direct burden upon, and impedes, interstate traffic, and impairs the usefulness of defendant's facilities for that purpose; that it is impossible to observe the statute in carrying mails and in interstate commerce business. But these averments are mere conclusions. They set forth no facts which would make the operation of the statute unconstitutional. They do not show the number or location of the crossings at which the railway company would be required to check the speed of its trains, so as to interfere with their successful operation. For aught that appears

Page 217 U. S. 537

as allegations of fact in this answer, the crossing at which this injury happened may have been so located and of such dangerous character as to make the slackening of trains at that point necessary to the safety of those using the public highway, and a statute making such requirement only a reasonable police regulation, and not an unlawful attempt to regulate or hinder interstate commerce. In the absence of facts setting up a situation showing the unreasonable character of the statute as applied to the defendant under the circumstances, we think the amended answer set up no legal defense, and that the demurrer thereto was properly sustained.

The learned counsel for the petitioner insists that, under the decisions in Georgia, in the absence of a special demurrer requiring a more particular statement, the answer was sufficient. It is enough to say that we have examined those decisions, and think that they do not indicate a departure from the general rule that a pleading must state facts, and not mere conclusions, and that the want of definite allegations essential to a cause of action or defense renders a pleading subject to demurrer.

We find no error in the judgment of the circuit court of appeals, and the same is affirmed in both cases.


MR. JUSTICE HOLMES, dissenting:

The petitioner set up as a defense to these actions that the statute under which it was sued was such a burden on commerce among the states as to violate Art. I, § 8, of the Constitution of the United States -- a pure issue of law. If, in order to try this issue intelligently, it was necessary to take evidence of facts, I think the court was bound to hear such evidence, even without any specific allegation of the facts that would maintain it, as it is the court's duty to know and to declare the law. But I

Page 217 U. S. 538

leave that question on one side because the petitioners did not stop with the naked proposition, but alleged further that

"it is impossible to observe said statute and carry the mails as the defendant is required to carry them under the contract it has with the government, and it is likewise impossible to do an interstate business and at the same time comply with the terms of said statute."

These are pure allegations of fact. They mean, on their face, that the requirement that the engineer at every grade crossing should have his train under such control as to be able to stop, if necessary, to avoid running down a man or wagon crossing the track, requires such delays as to prevent, or seriously to interfere with, commerce among the states. They refer to physical conditions and to physical facts; they can refer to nothing else. I think it obvious that they mean that the crossings are so numerous as to make the requirement impracticable, since I can think of nothing but the number of them that would have that effect.

The statement may be called a conclusion, but it is a conclusion of fact, just as the statement that a certain liquid was beer is a conclusion of fact from certain impressions of taste, smell, and sight. If the objection to the pleading had been that more particulars were wanted, although, for my part, I think it would have been unnecessarily detailed and prolix pleading to set forth what and where the crossings were, the pleading should not have been rejected, but the details should have been required. The petitioner showed that it was ready to give them, by its offer of proof. But evidently the answer was not held bad on that ground. Presumably, at least as stated by the counsel for the petitioner, it was held bad on the ground taken by the supreme court of that state, that, although the requirement was impracticable, it was the law. Central of Georgia Ry. v. Hall, 109 Ga. 367, 369.

Page 217 U. S. 539

For it is to be observed further that the facts involved were public facts, and that, although the court might not take notice of the precise situation of particular crossings, it well might take notice, as the Supreme Court of Georgia seems to have taken notice in the case just mentioned, that they were numerous. See United States v. Rio Grande Dam & Irrigation Co., 174 U. S. 690, 174 U. S. 698, and for many cases, Wigmore, Ev. §§ 2575, 2580. 16 Cyc.Law & Proc. p. 862. 17 Am. & Eng. Ency.Law, 2d. ed. p. 904. Again, if any merely technical objection had been thought fatal to the defense, the petitioner undoubtedly would have met it by a further amendment to its plea.

It seems to me a miscarriage of justice to sustain liability under a statute which possibly, and I think probably, is unconstitutional until the facts have been heard which the petitioner alleged and offered to prove. I think that the judgment should be reversed.

I am authorized to say that MR. JUSTICE WHITE concurs in this dissent.

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