WESTERN UNION TEL. CO. V. FOSTER, 247 U. S. 105 (1918)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Western Union Tel. Co. v. Foster, 247 U.S. 105 (1918)

Western Union Telegraph Company v. Foster

No. 274, 275, 419, 420

Argued April 29, 30, 1918

Decided May 20, 1918

247 U.S. 105




The New York Stock Exchange, for lump sums, contracted with telegraph companies to furnish them continuous stock quotations, to be furnished by them in turn to their subscribers by ticker service; each subscriber's application must be subject in terms to his being approved by the Exchange before it became effective, and must authorize the company to discontinue his service whenever so directed by the Exchange, the contract declaring that the Exchange reserved these rights to prevent improper use of the facts. Under this arrangement, the quotation, a received from the Exchange in New York, were wired in Morse code to Boston, where they were

Page 247 U. S. 106

decoded and wired to the tickers, the wire of other companies being in part used in the process. Held, that the transmission of the quotations remained interstate commerce until completed in the subscribers' offices, and that an order of a Massachusetts commission, requiring the companies to cease discriminating against a would-be subscriber whom the Exchange disapproved was a direct interference with such commerce not sanctioned under the police power of the state or its power over streets crossed by the telegraph which infringed the constitutional right of the companies and those of the Exchange.

224 Mass. 365 reversed.

The cases are stated in the opinion.

Page 247 U. S. 110

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

Four cases were argued together in this Court. The first two were suits in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, one a statutory petition by the telegraph companies to have an order of the Public Service Commission annulled, the other a bill by the Commission to have the same order enforced. The cases were consolidated and reserved on the pleadings for determination by the full court, which decreed that the petition of the plaintiffs in error should be dismissed and the order of

Page 247 U. S. 111

the Commission obeyed. 224 Mass. 365. The order recited that the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, by the Western Union Telegraph Company, lessee, and the United Telegram Company had, without just cause, refused to supply to Calvin H. Foster the continuous quotations of the New York Stock Exchange by means of ticker service then supplied to others, declared the refusal an unlawful discrimination, and required the two companies to remove the discrimination forthwith.

The material facts may be abridged as follows: the New York Stock Exchange, having a monopoly of the information collected by it on the floor of the Exchange concerning the prices quoted in transactions there, made contracts with the plaintiffs in error of the same general character as those before the court in Board of Trade v. Christie Grain & Stock Co., 198 U. S. 236, 198 U. S. 246, and Hunt v. New York Cotton Exchange, 205 U. S. 322. By these contracts for specified lump sums, the Exchange agreed to furnish to the Telegraph Companies simultaneously full and continuous quotations of prices made in transactions upon the Exchange. The Telegraph Companies "may," in their turn, furnish quotations to their "patrons" at intervals of more than fifteen minutes subject to discontinuance upon objection of the Exchange, and may furnish continuous service by ticker to subscribers, provided the latter sign applications in duplicate, one of which is to go to the Exchange, the application not to be effectual until the subscriber is approved by the Exchange, agreeing that the Telegraph Company may discontinue the service "whenever directed so to do by said new York Stock Exchange." The application recognizes that the quotations are furnished under contract with the Exchange, and agrees not to furnish the quotations to branch offices or correspondents unless first approved by the Exchange and also signing agreements, one of which is to be delivered to the Exchange. The contract states

Page 247 U. S. 112

that the intent of the Exchange in reserving the right to disapprove, etc., is only to prevent improper and unlawful use of the facts.

The Gold and Stock Telegraph Company's business is carried on by the Western Union Telegraph Company in the name of the former. The quotations are furnished to the latter in New York, telegraphed by it to the office of the Gold and Stock Company in Boston, translated from the Morse code into English, and thence transmitted by an operator to the tickers in the offices of the brokers who have subscribed and have been approved. The United Telegram Company, a New Jersey corporation, receives quotations for Boston alone, where is its principal office outside of New Jersey. They are furnished by the Exchange in New York, telegraphed to the Boston office over a wire of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, and thence transmitted as in the other case. On these facts, the plaintiffs in error say that the order is an unwarranted interference with commerce among the states, and takes property without due process of law, setting up the Constitution of the United States.

We shall not discuss the bearing of the Fourteenth Amendment nor yet how far an order simply to remove a discrimination could be effectual when, if Mr. Foster were let in on the same terms as those now accepted as subscribers, he would agree that the Telegraph Company might discontinue its service without notice whenever directed so to do by the New York Stock Exchange. It is enough that, in our opinion, the transmission of the quotations did not lose its character of interstate commerce until it was completed in the brokers' offices, and that the interference with it was of a kind not permitted to the states. The supposed analogy that has prevailed is that of a receiver of a package breaking bulk and selling at will in retail trade. But it appears to us misleading. We also think it unimportant that the contracts between the Exchange

Page 247 U. S. 113

and the Telegraph Companies emphasize the element of quasi-sale for lump sum, and leave it to the interest of the Telegraph Companies to find subscribers. Neither that nor the intervention of an operator, or of another company, are in the least degree conclusive. Unlike the case of breaking bulk for subsequently determined retail sales, in these, the ultimate recipients are determined before the message starts, and have been accepted as the contemplated recipients by the Exchange. It does not matter if they have no contract with the Exchange directly. It does not matter that, if the Telegraph Companies did not deliver to any given one, the Exchange could not complain. If the normal, contemplated, and followed course is a transmission as continuous and rapid as science can make it from Exchange to broker's office, it does not matter what are the stages or how little they are secured by covenant or bond.

Thus, lumber purchased in Texas for the purpose of filling foreign orders was held to be carried in interstate commerce, although no contract prevented the purchaser from giving it a different destination. Texas & New Orleans R. Co. v. Sabine Tram Co., 227 U. S. 111, 227 U. S. 126. Practice, intent, and the typical course, not title or niceties of form, were recognized as determining the character, and other cases to the same effect were cited. The principle was reaffirmed in Railroad Commission of Louisiana v. Texas & Pacific Ry. Co., 229 U. S. 336, and is too well settled to need to be further sustained. Western Oil Refining Co. v. Lipscomb, 244 U. S. 346, 244 U. S. 349. See Swift & Co. v. United States, 196 U. S. 375, 196 U. S. 398-399. It is admitted that the transmission from New York to Massachusetts by the Telegraph Company was interstate commerce. If so, it continued such until it reached "the point where the parties originally intended that the movement should finally end." Illinois Central R. Co. v. Louisiana R. Co. Commission, 236 U. S. 157, 236 U. S. 163.

Page 247 U. S. 114

If the transmission of the quotations is interstate commerce, the order in question cannot be sustained. It is not like the requirement of some incidental convenience that can be afforded without seriously impeding the interstate work. It is an attempt to affect in its very vitals the character of a business generically withdrawn from state control -- to change the criteria by which customers are to be determined, and so to change the business. It is suggested that the state gets the power from its power over the streets which it is necessary for the telegraph to cross. But if we assume that the plaintiffs in error under their present charters could be excluded from the streets, the consequence would not follow. Acts generally lawful may become unlawful when done to accomplish an unlawful end, United States v. Reading Co., 226 U. S. 324, 226 U. S. 357, and a constitutional power cannot be used by way of condition to attain an unconstitutional result. Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Kansas, 216 U. S. 1; Pullman Co. v. Kansas, 216 U. S. 56; Sioux Remedy Co. v. Cope, 235 U. S. 197, 235 U. S. 203. The regulation in question is quite as great an interference as a tax of the kind that repeated decisions have held void. It cannot be justified "under that somewhat ambiguous term of police powers." Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Pendleton, 122 U. S. 347, 122 U. S. 359; Leisy v. Hardin, 135 U. S. 100; Savage v. Jones, 225 U. S. 501, 225 U. S. 520; Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Brown, 234 U. S. 542, 234 U. S. 547. Without going into further reasons, we are of opinion that the decree of the Supreme Judicial court must be reversed.

The other two cases were suits brought by the New York Stock Exchange against the Telegraph Companies severally, and Foster. The bills set forth the respective contracts with the companies, allege that Foster made applications to them in the prescribed form, was given a full hearing before a committee of the Exchange, and that as a result, the Exchange reached the conclusion that

Page 247 U. S. 115

Foster had been conducting bucket shops and wanted the quotations in aid of such shops, and therefore disapproved the applications. They set forth the order of the state commission, the decree of the state court, and the intent of the telegraph companies to comply with the order, and allege that it is void as beyond the jurisdiction of the state commission under the Constitution and Acts of Congress, and also as depriving the plaintiff of its property without due process of law. Injunctions are prayed against delivery of continuous quotations to Foster or receipt of them by him unless and until he shall have acquired the right by contract with the approval of the Exchange. Subsequently, the members of the Public Service Commission were made parties, and then, upon their motion, the bills were dismissed by the district court, the judge accepting the reasoning of the supreme court of the state. The decision seems to have been upon the merits, but the question is certified whether the bill presents a controversy which arises under the Constitution or laws of the United States within the meaning of § 24 of the Judicial Code. In view of the decision in the state cases, probably it will not be necessary to prosecute these suits farther. But it follows from what we have said that the decision of the district court was wrong, and that the decrees in these cases also must be reversed. It is suggested, to be sure, that the Exchange would be barred by the state decree against the Telegraph Companies if it stood, because the Exchange, by its contracts, reserved the right to intervene in such suits. It did not intervene, and therefore would not have been bound.

Decrees reversed.

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