JAMES STEWART & CO. V. SADRAKULA, 309 U. S. 94 (1940)

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U.S. Supreme Court

James Stewart & Co. v. Sadrakula, 309 U.S. 94 (1940)

James Stewart & Co. v. Sadrakula

No. 251

Argued January 12, 1940

Decided January 29, 1940

309 U.S. 94



1. Under Jud.Code § 237(a) and the Act of January 31, 1928, this Court has jurisdiction over an appeal from a judgment of a state court of last resort, sustaining a recovery of damages for accidental death, which necessarily upholds a state statute under which the damages were awarded against the contention that, in its application to the locus in quo -- a post office site -- it violated the provisions of the Constitution as to authority of the United States in such places. P. 309 U. S. 97.

2. Upon the transfer from a State to the United States of exclusive jurisdiction of a site for a post office, the state laws in effect at the time continue in force as federal laws, save as they may be inappropriate to the changed situation or inconsistent with the national purpose, and save as Congress may have provided otherwise. P. 309 U. S. 99.

3. Section 241(4) of the New York Labor Law, which requires the planking-over of floor beams on which iron or steel work is being erected in building construction, remained in force as to the post office site in New York City after the acquisition of the site by the United States, and was applicable to a contractor engaged in constructing the post office under a contract with the Government. P. 309 U. S. 100.

The fact that the Labor Law contains numerous administrative and other provisions inapplicable in the changed situation does not render § 241(4) inapplicable.

4. The possibility that the safety requirement of boarding-over the steel tiers may slightly increase the cost of construction to the Government does not make the requirement inapplicable to the post office site. P. 309 U. S. 104.

Page 309 U. S. 95

5. While the government building contract is in a sense the means by which the United States secures the construction of its post office, the contractor, in carrying out the contract, has not the immunity of a government instrumentality. P. 309 U. S. 105.

6. A contract for the building of a post-office in the City of New York provided that "State or Municipal Building Regulations do not apply to work inside the Government's lot lines," the sentence quoted being in a section of the contract relating to "licenses, permits, etc." Held, that the intention was to relieve the contractor from provisions of the city building code relating to types of material, fire hazards, and the like. P. 309 U. S. 105.

254 App.Div. 892; 5 N.Y.S.2d 260, affirmed.

Appeal from a judgment of the Supreme Court of New York, entered on remittitur from the Court of Appeals, 280 N.Y. 651, 730; 20 N.E.2d 1015; 21 N.E.2d 217, and sustaining an award of damages for accidental death.

Page 309 U. S. 97

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal from a final judgment of the Supreme Court of New York awarding damages for accidental death. As a statute of the state necessarily was sustained against a contention that its application to these circumstances violated the provisions of the Constitution as to the exclusive authority of the United States over a post office site purchased with the consent of New York, [Footnote 1] this Court has jurisdiction under Section 237(a) of the Judicial Code and the Act of January 31, 1928.

The issue of law involved is whether an existing provision of a state statute requiring the protection of places of work in the manner specified in the statute [Footnote 2] remains

Page 309 U. S. 98

effective as a statute of the United States applicable to the particular parcel after the federal government acquires exclusive jurisdiction of a parcel of realty on which work is being done.

The decedent, an employee of a rigging company, a subcontractor engaged in the construction of the New York post office, fell from an unplanked tier of steel beams down a bay, and was killed. In an action of tort against the general contractor, his administratrix narrowed the scope of the charges of negligence until violation of the quoted subsection of the Labor Law only was alleged. The trial court found that the proximate cause of the accident was the negligent failure to plank the beams as required by the statute. The Appellate Division affirmed [Footnote 3] on the ground that the Labor Law provision continued effective over the post office site after the transfer of sovereignty, and the Court of Appeals, by an order of remittitur, also affirmed on the same ground, with a statement that, in its affirmance, it necessarily passed upon the validity and applicability of Section 241(4) of the Labor Law under Article I, § 8 of the Constitution. 280 N.Y. 651, 20 N.E.2d 1015; 280 N.Y. 730, 21 N.E.2d 217.

The language of the Court of Appeals and the record show indubitably that a determinative federal question

Page 309 U. S. 99

was decided. [Footnote 4] The conclusion as to the continued vitality of existing state statutory regulations in the protection of workmen in ceded federal areas makes it substantial. [Footnote 5] The motions to dismiss or affirm the appeal are denied. [Footnote 6]

If the quoted provision of the Labor Law is operative even though exclusive jurisdiction had already vested in the United States, it is unnecessary to determine whether exclusive jurisdiction had actually passed to the United States. The state courts assumed that federal sovereignty was complete through consent by the state, and we make the same assumption. Does the acceptance of sovereignty by the United States have the effect of displacing this subsection of the New York Labor Law? We think it did not. The subsection continues as a part of the laws of the federal territory.

It is now settled that the jurisdiction acquired from a state by the United States, whether by consent to the purchase or by cession, may be qualified in accordance with agreements reached by the respective governments. [Footnote 7] The Constitution does not command that every vestige of the laws of the former sovereignty must vanish. On the contrary, its language has long been interpreted so as to permit the continuance until abrogated of those rules existing at the time of the surrender of sovereignty which govern the rights of the occupants of the territory transferred. [Footnote 8]

Page 309 U. S. 100

This assures that no area, however small, will be left without a developed legal system for private rights. In Chicago, R.I. & P. R. Co. v. McGlinn, supra, a Kansas statute relating to recovery against a railroad for the injury to livestock on its right of way existed at the time of the cession to the United States of exclusive jurisdiction over Fort Leavenworth Military Reservation. It was held that the was carried over into the law covering the Reservation. Conversely, in Arlington Hotel Company v. Fant, supra, an Arkansas statute relieving innkeepers, passed after cession of Hot Springs Reservation, was held unavailing as a defense to a Reservation innkeeper's common law liability in accordance with Arkansas law before the cession. Such holdings assimilate the laws of the federal territory, where the Congress has not legislated otherwise, to the laws of the surrounding state.

The Congress has recognized in certain instances the desirability of such similarity between the municipal laws of the state and those of the federal parcel. Since only the law in effect at the time of the transfer of jurisdiction continues in force, future statutes of the state are not a part of the body of laws in the ceded area. Congressional action is necessary to keep it current. Consequently as defects become apparent, legislation is enacted covering certain phases. This occurred as to rights of action for accidental death by negligence or wrongful act. [Footnote 9] After this statute was held inapplicable to claims under state workmen's compensation acts, further legislation

Page 309 U. S. 101

undertook to extend the provisions of those acts to the places under federal sovereignty. [Footnote 10] With growing frequency, the federal government leaves largely unimpaired the civil and criminal authority of the state over national reservations or properties. [Footnote 11] While exclusive federal jurisdiction attaches, state courts are without power to punish for crimes committed on federal property. [Footnote 12] This has made necessary the legislation which gives federal courts jurisdiction over these crimes. [Footnote 13] The tendency toward a uniformity between the federal and surrounding state territory has caused a series of congressional acts adopting the state criminal laws. [Footnote 14] Through these concessions, our dual system of government works cooperatively towards harmonious adjustment.

It is urged that the provisions of the Labor Law contain numerous administrative and other provisions which cannot be relevant to the federal territory. The Labor Law does have a number of articles. [Footnote 15] Obviously much

Page 309 U. S. 102

of their language is directed at situations that cannot arise in the territory. With the domestication in the excised area of the entire applicable body of state municipal law, much of the state law must necessarily be inappropriate. Some sections authorize quasi-judicial proceedings or administrative action, and may well have no validity in the federal area. It is not a question here of the exercise of state administrative authority in federal territory. [Footnote 16] We do not agree, however, that, because the

Page 309 U. S. 103

Labor Law is not applicable as a whole, it follows that none of its sections are. We have held in Collins v. Yosemite Park & Curry Co. [Footnote 17] that the sections of a California statute which levied excises on sales of liquor in Yosemite National Park were enforceable in the Park, while sections of the same statute providing regulation of the Park liquor traffic through licenses were unenforceable. [Footnote 18]

But the authority of state laws or their administration may not interfere with the carrying out of a national purpose. [Footnote 19] Where enforcement of the state law would

Page 309 U. S. 104

handicap efforts to carry out the plans of the United States, the state enactment must, of course, give way. [Footnote 20]

May it be said that the continued application of Section 241(4) of the Labor Law [Footnote 21] will interfere with the construction of the building upon this site? This is like other squares in the city. There are, of course, differentiations because of its ownership, but ownership, as such, has nothing to do with the safety requirements. It is true that it is possible that the safety requirement of boarding over the steel tiers may slightly increase the cost of construction to the government, but such an increase is not significant in the determination of the applicability of the New York statute. In answer to the argument that a similar increased cost from taxation would "make it difficult or impossible" for the government to obtain the service it needs, we said in James v. Dravo Contracting Co. [Footnote 22] that such a contention

"ignores the power of Congress to protect the performance of the functions of the national government and to prevent interference therewith through any attempted state action."

Such a safety requirement is akin to the safety provisions of Maryland law which, in Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad v. Lichtenberg, [Footnote 23] were held applicable to trucks of an independent contractor transporting government employees under a contract with the United States.

Page 309 U. S. 105

Finally, the point is made that a provision requiring boarding over of open steel tiers in a direct interference with the government. This is said to follow from the fact that the contract for the construction of the post office is an instrumentality of the federal government. A s a corollary to this argument, error is assigned to the refusal of the trial court to admit in evidence a clause of the contract between the United States and the appellant reading, "State or Municipal Building Regulations do not apply to work inside the Government's lot lines." [Footnote 24] While, of course, in a sense, the contract is the means by which the United States secures the construction of its post office, certainly the contractor in this independent operation does not share any governmental immunity. [Footnote 25] Nor do we think there was error in refusing to admit the clause of the contract as to building regulations. The quoted sentence is in a section of the contract relating to "licenses, permits, etc." We are of the opinion that it is intended to relieve the contractor from provisions as to types of material, fire hazards, and the like which are covered by the New York City Building Code.

Such a safety regulation as Section 241(4) of the New York Labor Law provides is effective in the federal area until such time as the Congress may otherwise provide. [Footnote 26]


[Footnote 1]

Constitution, Art. I, § 8, cl. 17:

"The Congress shall have Power . . . To exercise exclusive Legislation . . . over all Places purchased by the consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings. . . ."

[Footnote 2]

New York Labor Law § 241 reads as follows:

"Sec. 241. Protection of employees on building construction or demolition work. All contractors and owners, when constructing or demolishing buildings, shall comply with the following requirements:"

"* * * *"

"4. If the floor beams are of iron or steel, the entire tier of iron or steel beams on which the structural iron or steel work is being erected shall be thoroughly planked over to net less than six feet beyond such beams, except spaces reasonably required for proper construction of the iron or steel work, for raising or lowering of materials, or for stairways and elevator shafts designated by the plans and specifications."

[Footnote 3]

254 App.Div. 892, 5 N.Y.S.2d 260.

[Footnote 4]

Honeyman v. Hanan, 300 U. S. 14, 300 U. S. 19; Whitfield v. Ohio, 297 U. S. 431, 297 U. S. 435; cf. McGoldrick v. Gulf Oil Corp., 309 U. S. 2.

[Footnote 5]

Milheim v. Moffat Tunnel Improvement Dist., 262 U. S. 710, 262 U. S. 716.

[Footnote 6]

Cf. Mason Co. v. Tax Commission, 302 U. S. 186, 302 U. S. 197; Murray v. Joe Gerrick & Co., 291 U. S. 315, 291 U. S. 316.

[Footnote 7]

Collins v. Yosemite park & Curry Co., 304 U. S. 518, 304 U. S. 529-530; James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U. S. 134, 302 U. S. 147-149.

[Footnote 8]

Murray v. Joe Gerrick & Co., 291 U. S. 315, 291 U. S. 318; Arlington Hotel Co. v. Fant, 278 U. S. 439, 278 U. S. 445-446, 278 U. S. 454; Chicago, R.I. & P.R. v. McGlinn, 114 U. S. 542, 114 U. S. 546-547.

[Footnote 9]

45 Stat. 54, 16 U.S.C. § 457 (1928); see Murray v. Joe Gerrick & Co., 291 U. S. 315, 291 U. S. 319; H.R.Rep. No. 369, 70th Cong., 1st Sess.; 69 Cong.Rec. 1486.

[Footnote 10]

49 Stat. 1938, 40 U.S.C. § 290 (1936); see H.R.Rep. No. 2656, 74th Cong., 2d Sess.

[Footnote 11]

30 Stat. 668 (1898) (jurisdiction receded to states over places purchased for branches of solidiers' homes); 49 Stat. 668, 16 U.S.C. § 465 (1935) (waiver of federal jurisdiction for historic sites); 49 Stat. 2025, 40 U.S.C. § 421 (1936) (same for slum clearance and low cost housing projects); 49 Stat. 2035 (1936) (same for resettlement and rural rehabilitation); 50 Stat. 888, 894, § 13(b), 42 U.S.C. § 1413(b) (1937) (same for acquisitions of U.S. Housing Authority).

[Footnote 12]

Bowen v. Johnston, 306 U. S. 19, 306 U. S. 29; United States v. Unzeuta, 281 U. S. 138; United States v. Cornell, Fed.Cas. No. 14,867; Commonwealth v. Clary, 8 Mass. 72; People v. Hillman, 246 N.Y. 467, 159 N.E. 400.

[Footnote 13]

Judicial Code, §§ 24, 27.

[Footnote 14]

R.S. § 5391, 30 Stat. 717 (1898), 35 Stat. 1145 (1909), 48 Stat. 152 (1933), 49 Stat. 394 (1935).

[Footnote 15]

Article (1) Short title; definitions; (2) The department of labor; (3) Review by industrial board and court; (4) Employment of children and females; (5) Hours of labor; (6) Payment of wages; (7) General provisions; (8) Public work; (8-a) Grade crossing elimination work; hours and wages; (9) Immigrant lodging houses; (10) Building construction, demolition and repair work; (11) Factories; (12) Bakeries and manufacture of food products; (13) Manufacture in tenement houses; (14) Mercantile and other establishments; (15) Mines and tunnels; quarries; compressed air; (16) Explosives; (17) Public safety; (18) Miscellaneous provisions; laws repealed; when to take effect.

[Footnote 16]

We do not, therefore, need to consider the authority of the state administrative officers. New York Labor Law, § 242. Cf. Oklahoma City v. Sanders, 94 F.2d 323, 328. In this case, an injunction was obtained in the federal district court enjoining a city and certain of its officers from enforcing ordinances relating to licenses, bonds, and inspections by daily arrests on account of violations of these ordinances by a contractor doing construction work on a low cost housing project. The decree was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals after consideration of the Act of June 29, 1936, which reads that

"The acquisition by the United States of any real property . . . in connection with any low cost housing . . . project . . . shall not be held to deprive any State or political subdivision thereof of its civil and criminal jurisdiction in and over such property. . . ."

Except as affected by the act just quoted in part, the area was federal territory through a consent statute. The Court, speaking of the recession, said:

"It was not the purpose that the state should have the right to exert police power there through application of municipal ordinances relating to licenses, bonds, and inspections in the course of construction thereon of buildings by the United States government, no such legislative intent or desire being indicated by the act."

It also quoted with approval an excerpt from an opinion of the Director, Legal Division, Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works:

"I am therefore of the opinion that the state or local government may not supervise the work of a contractor performing work on property owned by the United States of a contract with the United States."

[Footnote 17]

304 U. S. 304 U.S. 518, 304 U. S. 532.

[Footnote 18]

We do not overlook the language in Murray v. Joe Gerrick & Co., 291 U. S. 315, 291 U. S. 319, called to our attention by appellant:

"If it were held that beneficiaries may sue pursuant to the compensation law, we should have the incongruous situation that this law is in part effective and in part ineffective within the area under the jurisdiction of the federal government."

That quotation had reference to a contention that the dependents of an employee killed on federal territory within a state might claim compensation as beneficiaries under a state compensation act. The compensation fund, collected and administered by state officers, was not effective in federal territory. Cf. Atkinson v. State Tax Commission, 303 U. S. 20, 303 U. S. 25. As the fund was not augmented by assessments against the federal contractor, the Court held the procedural provisions of the state compensation act did not apply.

[Footnote 19]

Pittman v. Home Owners' Loan Corp., 308 U. S. 21; Atkinson v. State Tax Commission, 303 U. S. 20, 303 U. S. 23; James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U. S. 134, 302 U. S. 147, 302 U. S. 161; United States v. Unzeuta, 281 U. S. 138, 281 U. S. 142; Ohio v. Thomas, 173 U.S. 761; Fort Leavenworth R. Co. v. Lowe, 114 U. S. 525, 114 U. S. 531; Kohl v. United States, 91 U. S. 367, 91 U. S. 371-372; @ 76 U. S. 591.

[Footnote 20]

Anderson v. Chicago & N.W. Ry. Co., 102 Neb. 578, 168 N.W.196, as commented upon in United States v. Unzeuta, 281 U. S. 138, 281 U. S. 144.

[Footnote 21]

Note 2 supra.

[Footnote 22]

302 U. S. 302 U.S. 134, 302 U. S. 160-161.

[Footnote 23]

176 Md. 383, 4 A.2d 734, appeal dismissed for want of a substantial federal question sub nom United States v. Baltimore & Annapolis R. Co., 308 U.S. 525.

[Footnote 24]

The entire section reads:

"22. Permits. The contractor shall, without additional expense to the Government, obtain all required licenses, permits, etc. This applies to work outside the lot lines, the use of streets and sidewalks, the protection of public and traffic, connections to utility service lines, etc. State or Municipal Building Regulations do not apply to work inside the Government's lot lines."

[Footnote 25]

James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U. S. 134, 302 U. S. 152; Helvering v. Mountain Producers Corp., 303 U. S. 376, 303 U. S. 385.

[Footnote 26]

38 Opinions of the Attorney General 341, 348, 349, is not to the contrary. It declared that Section 2 of a Nevada consent statute, Laws Nev.1935, c. 142, was clearly incompatible with exclusive jurisdiction. The section read:

"In the erection of such federal building by contract or otherwise, or in case of any subsequent reconstruction or alteration of such building, it is hereby reserved and provided that the state labor laws, the state labor safety laws, and the state health laws shall apply to all persons, firms, associations, or corporations having contracts for such construction or reconstruction as to all provisions contained therein, and no contractor having any such contract shall have the right to claim to be or to declare himself to be a government instrumentality."

The opinion however further stated:

"It is to be observed that there is nothing in what has been said concerning Sections 2 and 3 of the Nevada Statute inconsistent with the doctrine that state laws regulating private civil rights (as distinguished from state criminal laws . . . ) continue in force, as laws of the United States, on lands ceded by consent of the state to the United States, if not in conflict with the laws of the new sovereignty or the purpose for which the land is acquired, until superseded by laws enacted by the United States. . . . The difficulty with Sections 2 and 3 of the Nevada Act is that they do not merely occupy a vacant field until filled by the Federal Government -- they withhold and reserve jurisdiction, present and future, over the matters specified in them, howsoever inconsistent with existing or future laws of the United States. That precludes exclusive jurisdiction from vesting in the United States."

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