Swift & Co. v. United States
276 U.S. 311 (1928)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Swift & Co. v. United States, 276 U.S. 311 (1928)

Swift & Company v. United States, 276 U.S. 311 (1928)

No. 181

Argued October 3, 4, 1927

Reargued January 3, 4, 1928

Decided March 19, 1928

276 U.S. 311




1. Where a consent decree, entered in a suit brought by the government under the Anti-Trust Act, provided for entertaining at any time thereafter any application which the parties might make in respect to it, motions to vacate it made by defendants four years later in response to petitions of intervention and entitled in the suit were part of the original cause. P. 276 U. S. 322.

2. An appeal from an order of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia overruling defendant's motion to vacate a decree in a suit by the government under the Anti-Trust Act does not lie to the Court of Appeals of the District, and where erroneously taken there from an order entered before the effective date of the Jurisdictional Act of February 13, 1925, should be transferred by that court, as a circuit court of appeals, to this Court. P. 276 U. S. 323.

3. Where questions were certified to this Court in a case appealed to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia which, under the Expediting Act of 1903, should have been appealed directly here, this Court, by ordering up the entire record, acquired jurisdiction as fully as if a formal transfer had been made. P. 276 U. S. 323.

4. The Supreme Court of the District of Columbia has power to administer relief under the Anti-Trust Act (Federal Trade Comm'n v. Klesner,274 U. S. 145), and where the suit is one under § 4, which can only be brought in equity, it is properly brought in that court sitting in Equity, and need not be addressed to it at special term as the "District Court of the United States." P. 276 U. S. 324.

5. In a suit by the government to restrain alleged violations of the Anti-Trust Act, defendants denied material allegations of the bill, but consented to the entry without any proof or finding of facts, of a decree granting comprehensive relief under the bill but declaring that defendants maintained the truth of their answers, asserted their innocence, and consented to the entry of the decree upon condition that their consent should not constitute an admission, nor the decree an adjudication, that they, or any of them, had violated any law of the United States.


(1) That a motion by the defendants to vacate the consent decree could not be sustained upon the ground that there was no case

Page 276 U. S. 312

or controversy to afford jurisdiction, since (a) an injunction may issue to prevent future wrongs though no right has yet been violated, and (b) because, if the court, having jurisdiction of the subject and the parties, erred in deciding that there was a controversy, the error could have been reached only by bill of review or appeal. P. 276 U. S. 325.

(2) A motion to vacate would not lie upon the ground that the facts necessary to constitute a violation conferring jurisdiction under the Anti-Trust Act were neither admitted nor proved, since an injunction limited to future acts might be based upon allegations of the bill not specifically denied. Error in that regard would not go to the jurisdiction, and, besides being of a kind reviewable only by appeal, was in this case waived by consent to the decree. P. 276 U. S. 327.

(3) Prohibitions in an injunction decree which, standing alone, are too general are to be read with other parts of the decree and with allegations of the bill for the purpose of removing uncertainties. P. 276 U. S. 327.

(4) Provisions of the consent decree cannot be assailed by a motion to vacate upon the ground that they enjoin future conduct in terms too vague and general. P. 276 U. S. 327.

(5) Nor upon the ground that defendants are debarred in the future from lawful lines of business not connected by any finding of facts with the conspiracy charged, since consent to entry of the decree without such findings left power in the court to construe the pleadings and therein to find circumstances of danger justifying such prohibitions. P. 276 U. S. 328.

(6) Even if the consent decree contain prohibitions which are contrary to the Anti-Trust Act and the common law, and are grossly erroneous, it is not therefore void. P. 276 U. S. 330.

(7) If the court, in addition to enjoining the acts that were admittedly interstate, enjoined some that.were wholly intrastate and in no way related to the conspiracy to obstruct interstate commerce, it erred, and, had the defendants not waived such error by their consent, they might have had it corrected on appeal. But the error, if any, does not go to the jurisdiction of the court. P. 276 U. S. 330.

(8) The consent of the Attorney General to the decree, whether correctly or erroneously given, was within his official discretion. P. 276 U. S. 331.

Supreme Court of the District of Columbia affirmed.

Page 276 U. S. 313

Review of orders of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, overruling motions of Swift & Company and other defendants seeking to vacate a decree which had been entered by consent in a suit brought by the government under the Anti-Trust Law. The matter went first, by appeal, to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, and became lodged in this Court by an order calling up the entire record after that court had certified certain questions concerning it.

Page 276 U. S. 318

MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether the consent decree entered February 27, 1920, with a view to preventing

Page 276 U. S. 319

a long-feared monopoly in meat and other food products, is void. [Footnote 1]

On that day, the United States filed in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, sitting in equity, a petition under § 4 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, July 2, 1890, c. 647, 26 Stat. 209, to enjoin violations of that statute and of the Clayton Act, October 15, 1914, c. 323, 38 Stat. 730, 736. It named as defendants the five leading packers -- namely, Swift & Co., Armour & Co., Morris & Co., Wilson & Co., Inc., and the Cudahy Packing Company. And it joined with them 80 other corporations and 50 individuals, all but four of whom were associated with some one of the five defendants above named. The petition charged the defendants with attempting to monopolize a large proportion of the food supply of the nation and with attempting to extend the monopoly by methods set forth. It stated that the purpose of the suit was to put an end to the monopoly described, and to deprive the defendants of the instrumentalities by which they were perfecting their attempts to monopolize. It sought a comprehensive injunction and also the divestiture of the instrumentalities described.

Page 276 U. S. 320

Simultaneously with the filing of the petition, all the defendants filed answers which denied material allegations of the bill. There was filed at the same time a stipulation, signed by all the parties to the suit, which provided that the court might, without finding any fact, enter the proposed decree therein set forth. On the same day, a decree in the form so agreed upon was entered. To this decree all parties filed assents. In its opening paragraph, the decree embodied a clause of the stipulation to the effect that, while the several corporations and individual defendants

"maintain the truth of their answers and assert their innocence of any violation of law in fact or intent, they nevertheless, desiring to avoid every appearance of placing themselves in a position of antagonism to the government, have consented and do consent to the making and entry of the decree now about to be entered without any findings of fact, upon condition that their consents to the entry of said decree shall not constitute or be considered an admission, and the rendition or entry of said decree, or the decree itself, shall not constitute or be considered and adjudication that the defendants or any of them have in fact violated any law of the United States."

The decree declared, among other things, that the court had jurisdiction of the persons and the subject matter, and "that the allegations of the petitioner state a cause of action against the defendants under the provisions" of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and supplementary legislation. It granted comprehensive relief in accordance with the prayer of the bill. The details will be discussed later. The decree closed with this provision:

"Eighteenth. That jurisdiction of this cause be, and is hereby, retained by this Court for the purpose of taking such other action or adding at the foot of this decree such other relief, if any, as may become necessary or appropriate

Page 276 U. S. 321

for the carrying out and enforcement of this decree and for the purpose of entertaining at any time hereafter any application which the parties may make with respect to this decree."

None of the original parties to the suit made any application to the court between the date of the entry of the consent decree and November 5, 1924, but three intervening petitions were filed -- that of the Southern Wholesale Grocers' Association, allowed September 10, 1921, that of the National Wholesale Grocers' Association, allowed November 5, 1921, and that of the California Cooperative Canneries, allowed September 13, 1924. See California Co-op. Canneries v. United States, 299 F. 908. On November 5, 1924, two motions to vacate the decree were filed in the cause. One was by Swift & Co. and the subsidiary corporations and individual defendants associated with it, the other by Armour & Co. and the subsidiary corporations and individual defendants associated with it. The allegations of the two motions were identical, and each prayed that the consent decree be declared void. The grounds of invalidity relied upon will be stated later. On May 1, 1925, the two motions to vacate the consent decree were overruled. From the order overruling them, Swift & Co. and Armour & Co., with their respective associates, took appeals to the court of appeals of the District of Columbia.

On May 28, 1926, the United States filed in that court a motion to dismiss the appeals for want of jurisdiction, contending that an appeal lay only directly to this Court. On January 3, 1927, the Court of Appeals of the District entered an order dismissing the appeals. Promptly thereafter, Swift & Co., Armour & Co., and their respective associates, moved that court to stay the mandate and to transfer the appeals to this Court, pursuant to the Act of September 14, 1922, c. 305, 42 Stat. 837, incorporated in the Judicial Code as § 238(a). On

Page 276 U. S. 322

January 31, 1927, the court of appeals vacated its opinion and order and restored the case for reargument upon the question of its jurisdiction of the appeals and for argument on its jurisdiction to transfer the appeals to this Court. Thereafter, having heard argument, the Court of Appeals certified five questions to this Court under § 251 of the Judicial Code as existing prior to the Act of February 13, 1925, c. 229, 43 Stat. 936. On October 17, 1927, this Court, having heard argument on the certificate, ordered that the entire record in the cause be sent here, as provided in the same section. On that record, the case is before us. Many questions are presented.

An objection of the government to the jurisdiction of this Court must first be considered. The Expediting Act of February 11, 1903, c. 544, 32 Stat. 823, U.S.C. Tit. 15, § 29, provides that, from a final decree in a suit in equity brought by the government under the Anti-Trust Act, an appeal lies only directly to this Court. The government suggests that, under the Expediting Act, no appeal lay to the Court of Appeals from the order denying the motion to vacate; that the court of appeals consequently was powerless to certify questions relating to the merits; that this Court, by ordering up the record as provided in § 251 of the Judicial Code, did not acquire jurisdiction to decide questions which could not lawfully have been certified under that section; that the case may not be treated as here on transfer, because the Court of Appeals of the District is not a circuit court of appeals within the meaning of the Act of 1922, and that this Court is therefore without power to pass on the merits of the cause. Swift and Armour answer that the motions to vacate the consent decree are not subject to the provisions of the Expediting Act because they are not a part of the suit filed February 27, 1920, under the Anti-Trust Act, but constitute a new suit. Compare 245 U. S. S. 323

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