Wilson v. North Carolina
169 U.S. 586 (1898)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wilson v. North Carolina, 169 U.S. 586 (1898)

Wilson v. North Carolina

No. 558

Submitted January 17, 1898

Decided March 21, 1898

169 U.S. 586

Syllabus

Chapter 320 of the Laws of North Carolina of 1891 was a valid law, and the action of the Governor of the state under it in suspending the plaintiff in error as Railroad Commissioner, appointed under it, was, as construed by the Supreme Court of that state, a valid exercise of the power conferred upon the Governor by that act, and was due process of law, within the meaning of the Constitution.

The federal question which is attempted to be raised in this case is unfounded in substance, and does not really exist.

The judgment of the state court in this case operated of itself to remove the plaintiff in error from the office of Railroad Commissioner, and there is no foundation in the evidence for the allegation that his successor knew of the filing of the supersedeas bond when he took possession of the office, or was guilty of contempt in doing so.

Two motions were made in this case. The defendant in error made a motion to dismiss the writ on the ground of want of jurisdiction. The plaintiff in error obtained from this Court a rule against the relator, Caldwell, to show cause why he should not be punished as for a contempt in proceeding upon the judgment of the state court after a writ of error from this Court had been allowed, and a supersedeas bond duly filed. The two motions were heard together.

The following were the facts presented upon the motion to dismiss:

By chapter 320 of the Laws of 1891, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed an act creating a state railroad commission, the first section of which is set out in the margin. *

Page 169 U. S. 587

At the same session, the legislature passed another act making such commission a court of record.

Under the authority of the first-mentioned act, James W. Wilson, the plaintiff in error, was elected Railroad Commissioner by the General Assembly of 1893 for the term ending April 1, 1899, and he duly qualified, and entered upon the discharge of his duties as such Railroad Commissioner.

On the 24th of August, 1897, the Governor sent a communication to the plaintiff in error in which, after stating that it had been charged that he had been guilty of a violation of the act above mentioned, and giving the particulars regarding such violation, the Governor directed him to show cause on a day named at the office of the executive in Raleigh why he should not be suspended from office, and a report thereof made to the next General Assembly according to law, and he was directed on the return day of the notice to make answer and proofs in writing, and to be present in person or by counsel at his election.

On the return day the plaintiff in error appeared and denied in writing the various charges contained in the Governor's communication, after which, in explanation of the charges, he made a written statement in regard to them. The plaintiff in error demanded of the Governor that the evidence against him be produced, and that he have an opportunity to confront

Page 169 U. S. 588

his accusers and cross-examine the witnesses. This demand was refused.

After receiving the answer and explanation of the plaintiff in error, and after hearing him upon the return day, the Governor subsequently, and on the 23d of September, 1897, sent him a written notice in which he said to the plaintiff in error

"that you have not only violated said act in the specification set out in said act, but that you have otherwise, within the meaning and intent and words of said act, become disqualified to act."

The Governor therefore, assuming to proceed under the statute, further informed the plaintiff in error that he thereby suspended him

"from the office of Railroad Commissioner and chairman of said commission, such suspension to continue until the question of your removal or restoration shall be determined by a majority of the General Assembly in joint session. The fact of your suspension, together with the reasons therefor and the evidence, documents, and information connected therewith will be reported to the next General Assembly. You will further take notice that, under and by virtue of the powers conferred and duties imposed by law upon the chief executive, I have appointed L. C. Caldwell, Esq., of the County of Iredell, to fill the vacancy created by your suspension. Inasmuch as you are understood to deny the power of the executive to suspend you from office, as provided by the statutes, I have requested Mr. Caldwell to make demand upon you for the possession of the office, and, upon your refusal, to bring action therefor, to the end that the title to the office may be judicially determined."

"D. L. Russell, Governor"

The plaintiff in error, in reply to the communication of the Governor, sent him the following letter:

"Raleigh, N.C. September 24, 1897"

"To D. L. Russell, Governor"

"Sir: Yours of the 23d inst. is hereby acknowledged. In reply, I will say that I shall disregard your order to suspend, but will continue to do business at the old stand until

Page 169 U. S. 589

removed by a tribunal other than a self-constituted 'star chamber.'"

"Jas. W. Wilson"

"Chairman Railroad Commission"

Mr. Caldwell duly qualified as Railroad Commissioner, and thereupon demanded that the plaintiff in error should surrender the office, papers, records, etc., to him, which the plaintiff in error refused to do. Mr. Caldwell then obtained leave from the Attorney General to bring this action in the nature of a quo warranto to test the title to the office. In the complaint, the foregoing facts are set forth, and a judgment asked determining the title to the office to be in relator and granting him judgment for the possession thereof.

The defendant below served an answer in which it was admitted that the Governor undertook or attempted to suspend the defendant from his office, and that he designated the plaintiff (the relator) for the vacancy which he had attempted to create, and that the relator had taken the oath prescribed by law for Railroad Commissioner. It was also admitted that the defendant refused to vacate his office, or to surrender the same to the relator, and the defendant alleged that he was advised that his suspension was illegal, and that he was still entitled to discharge the duties of his office. He also set up that, by an act of the General Assembly of the state, the railroad commission had been constituted a court of record inferior to the supreme court, to be known as the "Board of Railroad Commissioners," and with general jurisdiction as to all subjects embraced in the act creating the commission. Being a judge of a court of record, the defendant alleged that the Governor had no constitutional power to suspend him.

The answer then set forth the proceedings already mentioned, resulting in the suspension of the defendant by the Governor, and it also set forth the various demands made by defendant before the Governor to be confronted with witnesses, and to have an opportunity to cross-examine them, and the Governor's refusal of those demands, and as a result the

Page 169 U. S. 590

defendant alleged that the Governor had, without evidence and without trial, found that the defendant had violated the law, and had become disqualified to act as Railroad Commissioner, and that he had, without a more specific finding, assumed to suspend the defendant, and deprive him of his office.

The defendant also alleged in his answer that the action of the Governor was taken in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Upon these pleadings, the action came on for trial, and the record states that

"at the conclusion of the reading of the pleadings, the defendant tendered the following issues, and demanded a trial by jury:"

"1. Is the plaintiff entitled to the office of Railroad Commissioner?"

"2. Does the defendant unlawfully intrude into, hold, and exercise the office of Railroad Commissioner and chairman of said commission?"

"3. Has the defendant acquired any interest in any way in the Southern Railway Company, in violation of law?"

"4. Has the defendant become disqualified to act as a fair judge or commissioner, or has he become in any way disqualified to act?"

"5. Did the defendant, prior to September 1, 1897, sell and convey for a valuable consideration the Round Knob Hotel to R. M. Brown?"

"6. Did the defendant demand of the Governor that the evidence against him be produced, and that he have an opportunity to confront his accusers, and cross-examine the witnesses against him?"

"7. Was said demand refused?"

"8. Was any evidence produced?"

The court refused to submit these questions to the jury, and the defendant excepted.

The plaintiff thereupon moved for judgment upon the complaint and answer. The defendant objected that the motion was irregular, and that the plaintiff should either demur or go to trial before the jury, and that the statute in question, and the action of the Governor, set out in the pleadings, deprived

Page 169 U. S. 591

defendant of his office without due process of law and denied to him the equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the protection of which he expressly claimed.

The court ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to judgment upon the pleadings, which judgment was thereupon rendered, and the defendant excepted and appealed to the supreme court of the state. After argument, that court adjudged that the defendant had been lawfully suspended from the office of Railroad Commissioner; that the relator had been duly appointed to fill the vacancy thus created, and that the defendant should be ousted from, and the relator inducted into, that office. Judgment to that effect was accordingly entered. The defendant then sued out a writ of error from this Court, which was allowed by the chief justice of the supreme court of the state.

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