In re Debs
158 U.S. 564 (1885)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895)

In re Debs

No. 11

Argued March 5, 26, 1895

Decided May 7, 1885

158 U.S. 564

Syllabus

The order of the Circuit Court finding the petitioner guilty of contempt and sentencing them to imprisonment was not a final judgment or decree. The government of the United States has jurisdiction over every foot of soil within its territory, and acts directly upon each citizen.

While it is a government of enumerated powers, it has full attributes of sovereignty within the limits of those powers, among which are the

Page 158 U. S. 565

power over interstate commerce and the power over the transmission of the mails.

The powers thus conferred are not dormant, but have been assumed and put into practical exercise by Congressional legislation.

In the exercise of those powers, the United States may remove everything put upon highways, natural or artificial, to obstruct the passage of interstate commerce, or the carrying of the mails.

While it may be competent for the government, through the executive branch and in the use of the entire executive power of the Nation, to forcibly remove all such obstructions, it is equally within its competency to appeal to the civil courts for an inquiry and determination as to the existence and the character of any of them, and if such are found to exist or threaten to occur, to invoke the powers of those courts to remove or restrain them, the jurisdiction of courts to interfere in such matters by injunction being recognized from ancient times and by indubitable authority.

Such jurisdiction is not ousted by the fact that the obstructions are accompanied by or consist of acts in themselves violations of the criminal law, or by the fact that the proceeding by injunction is of a civil character, and may be enforced by proceedings in contempt; as the penalty for a violation of such injunction is no substitute for, and no defence to, a prosecution for criminal offences committed in the course of such violation.

The complaint filed in this case clearly shows an existing obstruction of artificial highways for the passage of interstate commerce and the transmission of the mails, not only temporarily existing, but threatening to continue, and under it, the Circuit Court had power to issue its process of injunction.

Such an injunction having been issued and served upon the defendants, the Circuit Court had authority to inquire whether its orders had been disobeyed, and, when it found that they had been disobeyed, to proceed under Rev.Stat. § 725 and to enter the order of punishment complained of.

The Circuit Court having full jurisdiction in the premises, its findings as to the act of disobedience are not open to review on habeas corpus in this or any other court.

The court enters into no examination of the act of July 2, 1890, c. 647, 26 Stat. 209, on which the Circuit Court mainly relied to sustain its jurisdiction, but it must not be understood that it dissents from the conclusions of that court in reference to the scope of that act, but simply that it prefers to rest its judgment on the broader ground discussed in its opinion, believing it important that the principles underlying it should be fully stated and fully affirmed.

On July 2, 1894, the United States, by Thomas E. Milchrist, district attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, under the direction of Richard Olney, Attorney General, filed their

Page 158 U. S. 566

bill of complaint in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Illinois against these petitioners and others. This bill set forth, among other things, the following facts: it named twenty-two railroad companies, and it alleged that they were engaged in the business of interstate commerce and subject to the provisions of the act of Congress of February 4, 1887, known as "the Interstate Commerce Act," and all other laws of the United States relating to interstate transportation of passengers and freight; that the number of passengers annually carried by them into the city of Chicago from other States than Illinois, and out of Chicago into other States than Illinois, was more than twelve millions, and in like manner that the freight so carried into and out of the city of Chicago, from and into other States than Illinois, amounted to many millions of tons; that each of the roads was under contract to carry, and in fact carrying, the mails of the United States; that all were by statute declared post roads of the government; that many were by special acts of Congress required at any and all times to carry the troops and military forces of the United States, and provisions, munitions, and general supplies therefor; and that two of them were in the hands of receivers appointed by the courts of the United States. It stated at some length the necessity of the continued and uninterrupted running of such interstate railroads for the bringing into the city of Chicago supplies for its citizens and for the carrying on of the varied industries of that city.

The bill further averred that four of the defendants, naming them, were officers of an association known as the American Railway Union; that, in the month of May, 1894, there arose a difference or dispute between the Pullman Palace Car Company and its employees, as the result of which a considerable portion of the latter left the service of the car company; that thereafter, the four officers of the railway union combined together, and with others, to compel an adjustment of such dispute, by creating a boycott against the cars of the car company; that, to make such boycott effective, they had already prevented certain of the railroads running out of Chicago from operating their trains, and were combining to extend

Page 158 U. S. 567

such boycott against Pullman sleeping cars by causing strikes among employees of all railroads attempting to haul the same. It charged knowledge on the part of the defendants of the necessity of the use of sleeping cars in the operation of the business of the railroads as common carriers, of the contracts for such use between the railroad companies and the car company, of the contracts, laws, and regulations binding the railway companies and the receivers to the carrying of the mails; also of the fact that sleeping cars were and of necessity must be carried upon the trains of said carriers with cars containing the mails; that with this knowledge, they entered into a combination and conspiracy to prevent the railroad companies and the receivers, and each of them, from performing their duties as common carriers of interstate commerce, and, in carrying into execution that conspiracy, did induce various employees of the railway companies to leave the service of the companies, and prevent such companies and the receivers from securing other persons to take their places; that they issued orders, notifications, etc., to the members of the railway union to leave the service of the companies and receivers, and to prevent the companies and receivers from operating their trains; that they had asserted that they could and would tie up, paralyze, and break down any and every of said railway companies and receivers which did not accede to their demands; that, in pursuance of the instructions, commands, and requests of said officers, large numbers of the employees of the railway companies and receivers left their service.

Then followed these allegations:

"And your orator further charges that said defendants aimed and intended, and do now aim and intend, in and by the said conspiracy and combination, to secure unto themselves the entire control of the interstate, industrial, and commercial business in which the population of the city of Chicago and of the other communities along the lines of road of said railways are engaged with each other, and to restrain any and all other persons from any independent control or management of such interstate, industrial, or commercial enterprises save according to the will and with the consent of the defendants. "

Page 158 U. S. 568

"Your orator further avers that, in pursuance of said combination and conspiracy and to accomplish the purpose thereof as hereinbefore set forth, the said defendants Debs, Howard, Rogers, Keliher and others, officers of said American Railway Union, issued or caused to be issued the orders and directions as above set forth, and that, in obedience of such orders and in pursuance of said conspiracy and combination, numerous employees of said railroad companies and receivers unitedly refused to obey the orders of said employers or to perform the usual duties of such service, and many others of such employees quit such service with the common purpose, and with the result, of preventing said railroad companies and receivers from operating their said railroads and from transporting the United States mails, and from carrying on or conducting their duties as common carriers of interstate traffic."

"Your orator further avers that, pursuant to said combination and conspiracy, and under the direction as aforesaid of said officers and directors of said American Railway Union, said other defendants and other persons, whose names are to your orator unknown, proceeded by collecting together in large numbers, by threats, intimidation, force and violence at the station grounds, yards and right of way of said railroad companies, respectively, in the State of Illinois, to prevent said railroad companies from employing other persons to fill the vacancies aforesaid; to compel others still employees of said railroad companies to quit such employment and to refuse to perform the duties of their service, and to prevent the persons remaining in such service and ready and willing to perform the duties of the same from doing so."

"Your orator further avers that said defendants, in pursuance of said combination and conspiracy, acting under the direction of said officers and directors of said American Railway Union, did with force and violence at divers times and places within said State of Illinois and elsewhere, stop, obstruct and derail and wreck the engines and trains of said railroad companies, both passenger and freight, then and there engaged in interstate commerce and in transporting United States mails, by locking the switches of the railroad of said

Page 158 U. S. 569

railroad companies by removing the spikes and rails from the track thereof, by turning switches and displacing and destroying signals, by assaulting and interfering with and disabling the switchmen and other employs of said railroad companies having charge of the signals, switches, and tracks of said companies and the movement of trains thereon, and in other manners by force and violence, depriving the employees of said railroad companies in charge of such trains of the control and management of the same, and, by these and other unlawful means, attempted to obtain and exercise absolute control and domination over the entire operations of said railroads."

The bill further set forth that there had become established in the city of Chicago a business conducted under the name of the Union Stock Yards, at which, for many years, immense numbers of livestock from States and Territories beyond the State of Illinois had been received, slaughtered, and converted into food products and distributed to all quarters of the globe, and that all the large centres of population in the United States were in a great degree dependent upon those stockyards for their food supply of that character; that, for the purpose of handling such livestock and the product thereof, the company conducting such business operated certain railroad tracks, and that, in pursuance of the combination and conspiracy aforesaid, the four defendants, officers of the railway union, issued orders directing all the employs handling such railroad tracks to abandon such service.

To this was added the following:

"And your orator further alleges that, in pursuance of the like combination and unlawful conspiracy, the said defendants and others combining and conspiring with them for the purpose of still further restraining and preventing the conduct of such business, have, by menaces, threats, and intimidation, prevented the employment of other persons to take the place of the employees quitting the service of said company so operating said Union Stock Yards."

"And your orator further charges that, by reason of said unlawful combination and conspiracy and the acts and doings aforesaid thereunder, the supply of coal and fuel for consumption

Page 158 U. S. 570

throughout the different States of the Union and of grain, breadstuffs, vegetables, fruits, meats and other necessaries of life, has been cut off, interrupted, and interfered with, and the market therefor made largely unavailable, and dealers in all of said various products and the consumers thereof have been greatly injured, and trade and commerce therein among the States has been restrained, obstructed, and largely destroyed."

The bill alleged that the defendants threatened and declared that they would continue to restrain, obstruct, and interfere with interstate commerce, as above set forth, and that they

"will, if necessary to carry out the said unlawful combination and conspiracy above set forth, tie up and paralyze the operations of every railway in the United States, and the in and industries dependent thereon."

Following these allegations was a prayer for an injunction. The bill was verified.

On presentation of it to the court, an injunction was ordered commanding the defendants

"and all persons combining and conspiring with them, and all other persons whomsoever, absolutely to desist and refrain from in any way or manner interfering with, hindering, obstructing or stopping any of the business of any of the following named railroads,"

(specifically naming the various roads named in the bill)

"as common carriers of passengers and freight between or among any States of the United States, and from in any way or manner interfering with, hindering, obstructing or stopping any mail trains, express trains or other trains, whether freight or passenger, engaged in interstate commerce, or carrying passengers or freight between or among the States; and from in any manner interfering with, hindering or stopping any trains carrying the mail; and from in any manner interfering with, hindering, obstructing or stopping any engines, cars or rolling stock of any of said companies engaged in interstate commerce, or in connection with the carriage of passengers or freight between or among the States; and from in any manner interfering with, injuring or destroying any of the property of any of said railroads engaged in or for the purpose of, or in connection with, interstate commerce or the carriage of

Page 158 U. S. 571

the mails of the United States or the transportation of passengers or freight between or among the States; and from entering upon the grounds or premises of any of said railroads for the purpose of interfering with, hindering, obstructing, or stopping any of said mail trains, passenger or freight trains engaged in interstate commerce, or in the transportation of passengers or freight between or among the States, or for the purpose of interfering with, injuring, or destroying any of said property so engaged in or used in connection with interstate commerce or the transportation of passengers or property between or among the States; and from injuring or destroying any part of the tracks, roadbed, or road, or permanent structures of said railroads; and from injuring, destroying, or in any way interfering with any of the signals or switches of any of said railroads; and from displacing or extinguishing any of the signals of any of said railroads, and from spiking, locking, or in any manner fastening any of the switches of any of said railroads, and from uncoupling or in any way hampering or obstructing the control by any of said railroads of any of the cars, engines, or parts of trains of any of said railroads engaged in interstate commerce or in the transportation of passengers or freight between or among the States, or engaged in carrying any of the mails of the United States; and from compelling or inducing or attempting to compel or induce, by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force, or violence, any of the employs of any of said railroads to refuse or fail to perform any of their duties as employees of any of said railroads in connection with the interstate business or commerce of such railroads or the carriage of the United States mail by such railroads, or the transportation of passengers or property between or among the States; and from compelling or inducing or attempting to compel or induce by threats, intimidation, force, or violence any of the employees of any said railroads who are employed by such railroads, and engaged in its service in the conduct of interstate business or in the operation of any of its trains carrying the mail of the United States, or doing interstate business, or the transportation of passengers and freight between and among the States,

Page 158 U. S. 572

to leave the service of such railroads; and from preventing any person whatever, by threats, intimidation, force, or violence from entering the service of any of said railroads and doing the work thereof, in the carrying of the mails of the United States or the transportation of passengers and freight between or among the States; and from doing any act whatever in furtherance of any conspiracy or combination to restrain either of said railroad companies or receivers in the free and unhindered control and handling of interstate commerce over the lines of said railroads, and of transportation of persons and freight between and among the States; and from ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting in any manner whatever any person or persons to commit any or either of the acts aforesaid."

"And it is further ordered that the aforesaid injunction and writ of injunction shall be in force and binding upon such of said defendants as are named in said bill from and after the service upon them severally of said writ by delivering to them severally a copy of said writ or by reading the same to them and the service upon them respectively of the writ of subpoena herein, and shall be binding upon said defendants, whose names are alleged to be unknown, from and after the service of such writ upon them respectively by the reading of the same to them or by the publication thereof by posting or printing, and after service of subpoena upon any of said defendants named herein shall be binding upon said defendants and upon all other persons whatsoever who are not named herein from and after the time when they shall severally have knowledge of the entry of such order and the existence of said injunction."

This injunction was served upon the defendants -- at least upon those who are here as petitioners. On July 17, the district attorney filed in the office of the clerk of said court an information for an attachment against the four defendants, officers of the railway union, and, on August 1, a similar information against the other petitioners. A hearing was had before the Circuit Court, and, on December 14, these petitioners were found guilty of contempt, and sentenced to

Page 158 U. S. 573

imprisonment in the county jail for terms varying from three to six months. 64 Fed.Rep. 724. Having been committed to jail in pursuance of this order, they, on January 14, 1895, applied to this court for a writ of error and also one of habeas corpus. The former was, on January 17, denied, on the ground that the order of the Circuit Court was not a final judgment or decree. The latter is now to be considered.

Page 158 U. S. 577

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