Monongahela Bridge Co. v. United States
216 U.S. 177 (1910)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Monongahela Bridge Co. v. United States, 216 U.S. 177 (1910)

Monongahela Bridge Company v. United States

No. 91

Argued January 19, 1910

Decided February 21, 1910

216 U.S. 177

ERROR TO THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Syllabus

Congress may, in order to enforce its enactments, clothe an executive officer with power to ascertain whether certain specified facts exist and thereupon to act in a prescribed manner, without delegating, in a constitutional sense, legislative or judicial power to such officer.

Under its paramount power to regulate commerce, Congress can require navigable waters of the United States, although within a state, to be freed from unreasonable obstructions, and it is not a delegation of legislative or judicial power to charge the Secretary of War with the duty of ascertaining, under a general rule applicable to all navigable waters and upon notice to the parties in interest, whether a particular bridge is an unreasonable obstruction to navigation.

An act of Congress which invests the Secretary of War with power to require the removal of obstructions to navigation after notice to parties in interest and opportunity to be heard and reasonable time to make alterations in the obstruction, as § 18 of the River and Harbor Act of March 3, 1899, 30 Stat. 1151, does not invest the Secretary with arbitrary power beyond constitutional limitations.

To require, after notice and hearing, alterations to be made within a reasonable time and in a bridge over such navigable waters so as to prevent its being an obstruction to navigation is not a taking of private property for public use which, under the Constitution, must be preceded by compensation made or secured to the owners of the bridge.

The erection of a bridge over such navigable waters within a state by authority of the state is subject to the paramount authority of Congress to regulate commerce among the states and its right to remove unreasonable obstructions to navigation.

The mere silence of Congress and its failure to interfere to prevent the construction under state authority of an obstruction to navigation does not prevent it from subsequently requiring the removal of the obstruction or impose upon the United States a constitutional obligation to make compensation therefor.

Page 216 U. S. 178

It is for Congress, under the Constitution, to regulate the right of navigation in navigable waters of the United States and to declare what must be done to clear navigation from obstructions, and where this has been done in the manner required by Congress, it is not the province of the jury, on the trial of one refusing to remove obstructions, to determine whether the removal was necessary.

An act will not be declared unconstitutional merely because an executive officer might, in another case, act arbitrarily or recklessly under it. If such a case arises, the courts can protect the rights of the government or persons which are based on fundamental principles for the protection of rights of property.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

Page 216 U. S. 185

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a criminal information by the United States under § 18 of the River and Harbor Act of March 3d 1899, against the president, managers, and company of the Monongahela Bridge Company, a Pennsylvania corporation.

That section is as follows:

"That whenever the Secretary of War shall have good reason to believe that any railroad or

Page 216 U. S. 186

other bridge now constructed, or which may hereafter be constructed, over any of the navigable water ways of the United States is an unreasonable obstruction to the free navigation of such waters on account of insufficient height, width of span, or otherwise, or where there is difficulty in passing the draw opening or the draw span of such bridge by rafts, steamboats, or other water craft, it shall be the duty of the said Secretary, first giving the parties reasonable opportunity to be heard, to give notice to the persons or corporations owning or controlling such bridge so to alter the same as to render navigation through or under it reasonably free, easy, and unobstructed; and, in giving such notice, he shall specify the changes recommended by the Chief of Engineers, that are required to be made, and shall prescribe, in each case, a reasonable time in which to make them. If at the end of such time, the alteration has not been made, the Secretary of War shall forthwith notify the United States district attorney for the district in which such bridge is situated, to the end that the criminal proceedings hereinafter mentioned may be taken. If the persons, corporation, or association owning or controlling any railroad or other bridge shall, after receiving notice to that effect, as hereinbefore required, from the Secretary of War, and within the time prescribed by him, willfully fail or refuse to remove the same, or to comply with the lawful order of the Secretary of War in the premises, such persons, corporation, or association shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and every month such persons, corporation, or association shall remain in default in respect to the removal or alteration of such bridge shall be deemed a new offense, and subject the persons, corporation, or association so offending to the penalties above prescribed: Provided, That in any case arising under the provisions of this section an appeal or writ of error may be taken from the district courts or from the existing circuit courts direct to the Supreme Court, either by the United States or by the defendants."

30 Stat. 1121, 1153, c. 425.

Page 216 U. S. 187

The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and a motion in arrest of judgment was made upon various grounds, the principal one being that the section of the above Act of 1899 was unconstitutional, null, and void. That motion was denied, and a motion for new trial having been overruled, the defendant was adjudged to pay to the United States a fine of $1,000 and the costs of prosecution. From that judgment, the case comes directly to this Court under the authority of the proviso in the above act. Section 18.

It is essential to a clear understanding of the questions raised by the bridge company that we state certain facts disclosed by the record.

The Bridge Company was incorporated under an act passed by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1830, and in 1833, by authority of that commonwealth, it constructed the bridge in question over the Monongahela River. The structure is known as the Brownsville Bridge, between the towns of West Brownsville and Bridgeport. The charter of the company provided, among other things, that "the erection of said bridge shall not obstruct the navigation of said river so as to endanger the passage of rafts, steamboats, or other water craft." Penn.Laws, 1829-30, p. 105.

On the twenty-ninth of April, 1903, the Secretary of War, Mr. Root, was petitioned by numerous companies and individuals to have an investigation made of the bridge "as to its obstruction of navigation," and if it was found to be an obstruction of that character,

"to have the means provided to compel it to be raised or equipped in such a way to relieve river people from the obstruction, making the height necessary to allow free navigation."

The petition proceeded:

"The coal in pools, one, two, three and four below Brownsville has been practically exhausted, and the Pittsburgh district will at no distant date, be forced to get its supply above Brownsville, in the fifth pool. The petitioners recognize how impossible it will be to build or improve lock No. 3 unless the elevation of the Brownsville Bridge be made at once."

This petition was

Page 216 U. S. 188

referred by the Chief of Engineers to Major Sibert of the Corps of Engineers, for investigation and report. The latter officer reported, among other facts, that

". . . 4. The height of this bridge is such that the average of the boats engaged in interstate commerce between the states referred to above [Pennsylvania and West Virginia] are prevented from passing under the bridge at a stage of water materially less than that which floods the walls of the locks of the Monongahela River. 5. A bridge that prevents the use of the locks owned by the government of the United States until the same are placed out of service by means of high water is, in the opinion of this office, an unreasonable obstruction to navigation. . . . 7. This bridge is an old, covered, wooden bridge, constructed some time between 1830 and 1840. 8. In the opinion of this office, this bridge is one that certainly requires action under section 18, River and Harbor Act of March 3, 1899. 9. It is therefore respectfully recommended that it be proceeded against in the manner specified under the law referred to above, both on account of insufficient height and length of span, and that, in the notice for a hearing in the case of this bridge, the changes proposed be such as to give a least clearance 52 feet under a channel span of 400 feet wide, the length of side spans to be determined from the developments at the hearing. It is considered that one and one-half years is a reasonable time in which to make the necessary changes in this bridge."

The Chief of Engineers endorsed that report and recommended that the papers be returned to Major Sibert, with instructions to hold a public hearing, after due notice to interested parties, as required by the law and the orders of the War Department.

Under date of May 23d 1904, Major Sibert made a report to the Chief of Engineers, from which it appears that the parties interested were given a hearing, all parties being present. That report stated:

"3. These hearings, as this office understands it, were held for the purpose of securing and forwarding such information as would enable the Secretary of War to decide whether or not there is good reason to believe that the

Page 216 U. S. 189

bridge in question is an unreasonable obstruction to navigation. 4. Stripped of all unnecessary verbiage, the question for determination is: is there good reason to believe that a bridge that prevents the better class of towboats actually navigating the Monongahela River, the commerce of which stream is about 10,000,000 tons annually, from passing under it for 17.7 days per year, and prevents the packets actually navigating said stream from passing under it for 52.1 days per year, all as determined by the official records kept by the United States, an unreasonable obstruction to navigation? The above days are days that the boats in question cannot pass under the bridge, but can pass through the locks that the government of the United States has provided for their use. Would a railroad company consider that there was good reason to believe that its traffic was unreasonably obstructed by another highway if its passenger and express business were absolutely stopped for 52.1 days per year and its freight business so stopped for 17.7 days per year, when the same could be overcome at a reasonable cost to the obstructing highway, which latter highway was the last built? . . . This office is of the opinion that the following should constitute the grounds upon which a conclusion should be reached as to whether or not any particular bridge unreasonably obstructs navigation: 1st. Every bridge should be so constructed as to permit the passage under it or through it, with reasonable safety, of the average-sized boat actually navigating the stream at all practical stages of water. 2d. Any bridge that does not permit the passage of such boat at such stages of water needlessly obstructs the use of the river highway, and exists under conditions that are not reasonable, since it is impracticable to raise or lower a stream, and it is always practicable to either build a bridge high enough and of sufficient width of span to allow the passage of such boats at such times as mentioned above, or to place a draw in the bridge. 3d. Where the topographical conditions are such that bridges can be made of such heights, without prohibitive cost, as to permit at all navigable stages of

Page 216 U. S. 190

water, the passage of boats best suited to the river commerce, it is for the best interest of both the land traffic and the river traffic that bridges be so constructed. . . . Based upon the foregoing, the essential features of which are the facts that towboat navigation with the better class of boats actually in use is prevented for 17.7 days of the year from passing under this bridge when the same could pass through the locks Congress has provided for such navigation, and that the packets actually navigating this stream are prevented from passing under this bridge at such time for 52.1 days in the year, and from the fact that Congress has specified in the two acts passed in the present year that a least clearance of 54 feet is needed for the navigation of this pool, whereas the bridge in question has only 40.2 feet, this office is of the opinion that there is good reason to believe that the bridge owned by the Monongahela Bridge Company at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, is an unreasonable obstruction to navigation, and therefore respectfully recommends that the Monongahela Bridge Company (George W. Lenhart, president, Brownsville, Pa.) be given notice to make the following changes in its bridge crossing the Monongahela River at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on or before August 1, 1905, to-wit: that the bridge be so altered as to give a channel span of not less than 390 feet in length between the face of the right abutment, as now located, and the center of the pier, and that the said channel span shall give a clearance height at the left, or pier, end, of not less than 52 feet, and at the right, or abutment, end of not less than 54 feet above the fourth pool of the Monongahela River. This will permit of the construction of the bridge in accordance with plan as shown in Sheet 3, Exhibit B, submitted by the Bridge Company."

The Chief of Engineers concurred in the views expressed and conclusions reached by Major Sibert, and recommended that notice be served accordingly.

Subsequently, August 10th, 1904, the Secretary of War, Mr. Taft, issued the following official notice, addressed to the Bridge Company:

Page 216 U. S. 191

"Whereas the Secretary of War has good reason to believe that the bridge of the Monongahela Bridge Company across the Monongahela River at Bridge Street, in the Borough of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, and commonly known as the Brownsville Bridge, is an unreasonable obstruction to the free navigation of the said Monongahela River (which is one of the navigable water ways of the United States) on account of insufficient height and length of span, and whereas, the following alterations, which have been recommended by the Chief of Engineers, are required to render navigation under it reasonably free, easy, and unobstructed, to-wit: so alter said bridge as to give a channel span of not less than 390 feet in length between the face of the right abutment, as now located, and the center of the pier, and that the said channel span shall give a clearance height of not less than 52 feet above the fourth pool of the Monongahela River, and whereas, to August 1, 1905, is a reasonable time in which to alter the said bridge, as described above: now therefore in obedience to, and by virtue of, section eighteen of an act of Congress of the United States entitled, 'An Act Making Appropriations for the Construction, Repair, and Preservation of Certain Public Works on Rivers and Harbors, and for Other Purposes,' approved March 3, 1899, I, William H. Taft, Secretary of War, do hereby notify the said Monongahela Bridge Company to alter the said bridge as described above, and prescribe that said alterations shall be made and completed on or before August 1, 1905."

This notice was duly served August 15th, 1904, on the Bridge Company, and the company failed to comply with the direction given by the Secretary of War.

Thereupon the present information was filed, charging the Bridge Company with having willfully failed, refused, and neglected to comply with the above order of the Secretary of War.

In view of this statement, an extended examination of the authorities would seem to be unnecessary, for substantially

Page 216 U. S. 192

all the material questions raised on this writ of error are, we think, concluded by former decisions cited in the margin. *

This Court has heretofore held, upon full consideration and after an examination of the adjudged cases:

1. That the § 18 of the River and Harbor Act of March 3, 1899, could not reasonably be taken as a delegation of legislative and judicial power to an executive department of the government; that the statute did not, in any real constitutional sense, delegate to the Secretary of War any power that must, under our system of government, be exclusively exercised either by the legislative or judicial branch of the government; that, under its paramount power to regulate commerce on and over the navigable waters of the United States, Congress could require that such waters be freed from unreasonable obstructions to navigation; that the statute in effect prescribed the general rule, applicable to all navigable waters, that free navigation should not be hampered by unreasonable obstructions arising from bridges of insufficient height, width of span, or other defects; that, instead of exerting its power by direct legislation in each case of a bridge alleged to constitute an unreasonable obstruction to navigation, Congress charged the Secretary of War with the duty of ascertaining, in each case, upon notice to the parties concerned, whether the particular

Page 216 U. S. 193

bridge came within the general rule prescribed; that any other method was impracticable in view of the vast and varied interests of the nation, requiring legislation from time to time; that the Secretary of War, proceeding under the act of 1899, could not be said to exercise strictly legislative or judicial power any more than when, upon investigation, the head of a department ascertains, under the direction of Congress, whether a particular applicant for a pension belonged to a class of persons who, under a general rule prescribed by Congress, were entitled to pensions, and that a denial to Congress of authority, under the Constitution, to delegate to an executive department or officer the power to determine some fact or some state of things upon which the enforcement of its enactment may depend, would often render it impossible or impracticable to conduct the public business, and to successfully carry on the operations of the government.

2. That the act of 1899 did not invest the Secretary of War with arbitrary power in the premises, since, in reference to any bridge alleged to constitute an unreasonable obstruction to navigation, he was bound, before making any decision or taking final action, to notify the parties interested of any proposed investigation by him, give them an opportunity to be heard, and allow reasonable time to make such alterations as he found to be necessary to free navigation.

3. That to require alterations or changes in a particular bridge within a specified time and after the parties have been heard was not such a taking of private property for public use as must, under the Constitution, be preceded by the making of or sufficiently securing compensation to the owners of the bridge.

4. That, although the Brownsville Bridge was originally constructed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and may not, at the date of its erection, have been an illegal structure or an unreasonable obstruction to navigation in the condition at that time of commerce and navigation on the Monongahela River, the bridge must be taken as having been

Page 216 U. S. 194

constructed with knowledge on the part of all of the paramount power of Congress to regulate commerce among the states, and subject to the condition or possibility that Congress might at some time after its construction, and for the protection or benefit of the public, exert its constitutional power to protect free navigation as it then was against unreasonable obstructions; that the mere silence of Congress, and its failure to directly interfere and prevent the original construction of the bridge under the authority of Pennsylvania imposed no constitutional obligation on the United States to make compensation for subsequent changes or alterations which the public good in its judgment, required to be made.

The adjudged cases fully sustain the judgment of the court below. We are asked to consider whether the opinion in Union Bridge Co. v. United States,204 U. S. 364 -- the case upon which the government mainly relies -- should not be modified. We perceive no reason for so doing. We adhere to what was said in that case.

It is urgently insisted that the defendant did not have such a hearing as it was entitled to have under the law on the question whether the bridge was in fact an unreasonable obstruction to navigation. This is a mistake. The Bridge Company had full notice of the action of the Engineer officer, who, under the order of the Secretary of War, made a tentative examination of the facts, and it appeared at the regular, final hearing before that officer, with liberty to contest the facts and introduce any evidence pertinent to the case. It does not appear that it offered any evidence that was rejected. It was not subjected to any mode of procedure that interfered in any degree with a full and fair disclosure of the material facts. The Engineer officer, after the hearing before him -- the Bridge Company being represented at the hearing -- found that the bridge was an unreasonable obstruction to navigation. He reported to the Secretary of War all the facts that were adduced before him, and which constituted the basis of his conclusion. And the decision of the Secretary was based on

Page 216 U. S. 195

the facts so reported to him. That it must be assumed on this record. It does not appear that the Secretary disregarded the facts, or that he acted in an arbitrary manner, or that he pursued any method not contemplated by Congress. It was not for the jury to weigh the evidence and determine, according to their judgment, as to what the necessities of navigation required, or whether the bridge was an unreasonable obstruction. The jury might have differed from the Secretary. That was immaterial, for Congress intended by its legislation to give the same force and effect to the decision of the Secretary of War that would have been accorded to direct action by it on the subject. It is for Congress, under the Constitution, to regulate the right of navigation by all appropriate means, to declare what is necessary to be done in order to free navigation from obstruction, and to prescribe the way in which the question of obstruction shall be determined. Its action in the premises cannot be revised or ignored by the courts or by juries, except that, when it provides for an investigation of the facts, upon notice and after hearing, before final action is taken, the courts can see to it that executive officers conform their action to the mode prescribed by Congress. Learned counsel for the defendant suggests some extreme cases, showing how reckless and arbitrary might be the action of executive officers proceeding under an act of Congress the enforcement of which affects the enjoyment or value of private property. It will be time enough to deal with such cases as and when they arise. Suffice it to say that the courts have rarely, if ever, felt themselves so restrained by technical rules that they could not find some remedy, consistent with the law, for acts, whether done by government or by individual persons, that violated natural justice or were hostile to the fundamental principles devised for the protection of the essential rights of property.

We find no error of law in the record, and the judgment must be affirmed.

It is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE BREWER dissents.

* Union Bridge Co. v. United States,204 U. S. 369; The Brig Aurora, 7 Cranch 382; Wayman v. Southard, 10 Wheat. 1; Field v. Clark,143 U. S. 649; C. W. &c. R. Co. v. Comm'rs, 1 Ohio St. 77; Moers v. City of Reading, 21 Pa. 188; Locke's Appeal, 72 Pa. 491, 498; Butterfield v. Stranahan,192 U. S. 470; Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1; Gibson v. United States,166 U. S. 269; Scranton v. Wheeler,179 U. S. 141; N.O. Gas Light Co. v. Drainage Comm'n,197 U. S. 453; C., B. & Q. R. Co. v. Drainage Comm'rs,200 U. S. 561; West Chicago Street R. Co. v. Chicago,201 U. S. 506; Dugan v. Bridge Co., 27 Pa. 303; Cooke v. Boston & Lowell R. Corp., 133 Mass. 185; Lake Erie & Western R. Co. v. Cluggish, 143 Ind. 347; Lake Erie & Western R. Co. v. Smith, 61 F. 885; Indiana v. Lake Erie & Western R. Co., 83 F. 284, 287; St. Louis & Iron Mountain R. Co. v. Taylor,210 U. S. 281; Northern Pacific R. Co. v. Duluth,208 U. S. 583.

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