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U.S. Supreme Court

Bullock v. Railroad Commission of Florida, 254 U.S. 513 (1921)

Bullock v. Railroad Commission of Florida

No. 262

Argued December 6, 7, 1920

Decided January 17, 1921

254 U.S. 513




1. The judgment of the state supreme court was reviewable in this case by certiorari, and not by writ of error. P. 254 U. S. 518.

2. Where a judgment of a state supreme court prohibiting proceedings in a lower court was essentially based on the denial of a substantive right claimed by a party, this Court is not precluded from reviewing, on a constitutional ground, by the fact that the judgment was in terms based on a denial of the prohibited court's jurisdiction. P. 254 U. S. 520.

Page 254 U. S. 514

3. Apart from statute or express contract, those who invest in a railroad, though built under a charter and the eminent domain power received from the state, are not bound to go on operating at a loss if there is no reasonable prospect of future profit, and their right to stop does not depend upon the consent of the state. P. 254 U. S. 520.

4. Where a state supreme court prohibited a lower court, in foreclosing a railroad, from authorizing and confirming a sale with liberty to the purchaser to dismantle the railroad, basing its decision upon the ground that the state was not a party and that the dismantling could not be so authorized without the state's consent, held that the prohibition could not affect the constitutional rights of the mortgagor, since the right to dismantle, as against the state, could not be conferred by a foreclosure decree in the state's absence, and would pass to the purchaser, if it existed, whether the decree so provided or not. P. 254 U. S. 521.

5. Whether a state is bound by a foreclosure proceeding to which it voluntarily makes itself a party before final decree is a local question the decision of which this Court will not review in a case from a state court. P. 254 U. S. 522.

82 So. 866 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 254 U. S. 518

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a proceeding by the relators seeking a prohibition forbidding a state judge of a lower court to confirm a sale of a railroad "for the purpose of and with the privilege on the part of the purchaser of dismantling the same" as authorized by a foreclosure decree. The trustee of the mortgage under foreclosure was made a party to the proceeding and demurred upon the ground that the prohibition would deprive him of his property without due process of law contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court of Florida granted the prohibition, State v. Bullock, 82 So. 866, 83 So. 701, and thereupon this defendant sued out a writ of error and filed a petition for a writ of certiorari from this Court. Action upon the latter was postponed to the hearing on the writ of error. Certiorari being the only remedy, the petition is granted, as the case is deemed a proper one to be reviewed.

The road concerned is that of the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad Company. It succeeded by foreclosure of a

Page 254 U. S. 519

previous mortgage to a logging road, and gave the present mortgage to Hood, one of the plaintiffs in error, in trust for the bondholders. The bonds are held by the Assets Realization Company. Before the present bill for foreclosure was filed, the Railroad Company had applied to the Railroad Commission for leave to cease operations, had been refused, and the state, by the Railroad Commission, had obtained an injunction forbidding the dismantling of the road and requiring it to go on. It ceased operations, however, on December 7, 1917. On December 10, 1917, the bill to foreclose was filed. On the same day, the state filed a bill in the same court, ancillary to its other bill, asking for a receiver to operate the road until further order, and, a few days later, sought to have its bill consolidated with the foreclosure suit. This was denied, and the state's bill was dismissed. The decree of foreclosure complained of was entered on December 24, 1917, but, on January 22, 1918, in deference to the state's contention that the road could be run at a profit, although the state had not been admitted formally as a party, H. S. Cummings was appointed a receiver, he being the most available man and being able by his connections to give the road a good deal of business in the way of carrying lumber. After nearly a year's trial, the court was satisfied that the road could not go on, and thereupon ordered a sale which was made on February 3, 1919. On March 27, 1919, the court admitted the state as a party and informed counsel that, if it turned out as the Receiver and state insisted, "that the road was operating so as to pay expenses of operation and the taxes and had some reasonable show for business, the sale would not be confirmed." On May 5, 1919, the court entered an order finding that the road was hopelessly insolvent and could not be operated so as to have any net income whatever, but postponing confirmation of the sale until May 12, before which time the proceedings for prohibition were begun.

Page 254 U. S. 520

The foreclosure decree of December 24, 1917, provided for a first offer of the road to be used as a common carrier, but if less than $200,000 was bid, there was to be a second offer with the privilege of dismantling. If, however, the bid on the second offer did not exceed by $100,000 the bid under the first offer, if there was one, the bid under the first offer was to be accepted. The trustee for bondholders was authorized to use the indebtedness of the company in bidding, and to apply his bid, if accepted, to the same. There was no bid on the first offer, and the Assets Realization Company bought the property under the second. The prohibition is against confirming the sale and against so much of the foreclosure decree as authorized the second offer or dismantling the road. The ground of decision was that, in the absence of statute, a railroad company has no right to divert its property to other uses without the consent of the state, and that the lower court had no jurisdiction to make the prohibited portion of the decree in a proceeding to which the state was not a party until after the decree had been made.

It is not questioned that the lower court had jurisdiction of the foreclosure, and it is not suggested that any statute forbids the decree that was made. The decision of the court proceeds upon a doctrine as to the duty of the railroad company, again a duty not based upon statute, and although stated in terms of jurisdiction, depends entirely upon a determination of what the rights of the company are. If the company had the right to stop its operations and dismantle its road, we do not understand that it is doubted that the decree might embody that right in its order of sale. If we are correct, the word "jurisdiction" must not prevent a further consideration of the case. Kenney v. Supreme Lodge of the World, Loyal Order of Moose, 252 U. S. 411, 252 U. S. 414-415.

Apart from statute or express contract, people who have put their money into a railroad are not bound to go on

Page 254 U. S. 521

with it at a loss if there is no reasonable prospect of profitable operation in the future. Brooks-Scanlon Co. v. Railroad Commission of Louisiana, 251 U. S. 396. No implied contract that they will do so can be elicited from the mere fact that they have accepted a charter from the state and have been allowed to exercise the power of eminent domain. Suppose that a railroad company should find that its road was a failure, it could not make the state a party to a proceeding for leave to stop, and whether the state would proceed would be for the state to decide. The only remedy of the company would be to stop, and that it would have a right to do without the consent of the state if the facts were as supposed. Purchasers of the road by foreclosure would have the same right.

But the foreclosure was not a proceeding in rem, and could confer no rights except those existing in the mortgagor. A purchaser at the sale would acquire all such rights as the mortgagor had to stop operations, whatever words were used in the decree, and, whatever the words, would get no more. The prohibition excluding from the decree the words purporting to authorize dismantling the road did not cut down the future purchaser's rights any more than did the presence of those words enlarge them. Therefore, the action of the supreme court is not open to objection under the Constitution of the United States, although it may be that it hardly would have been taken if the authority to dismantle had not sounded more absolute than it could be in fact considering the nature of the proceeding. Without previous statute or contract, to compel the company to keep on at a loss would be an unconstitutional taking of its property. But the prohibition does not compel the company to keep on; it simply excludes a form of authority from the decree that gives the illusion of a power to turn the property to other uses that cannot be settled in that case.

Page 254 U. S. 522

As the state voluntarily made itself a party to the foreclosure suit before the decree went into effect, as indeed the decree never has, it might seem that the state ought to be bound in a way that otherwise it would not be. But if, in a revisory proceeding, the higher state court says that the state should not be bound and that the decree was wrong in this particular, that is a local question with which we have nothing to do. The result is that, although the state court may have acted on questionable or erroneous postulates, there is nothing in its action that calls for a reversal of its judgment.

Writ of error dismissed.

Writ of certiorari granted.

Judgment affirmed.

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