Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore
32 U.S. 243

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U.S. Supreme Court

Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 32 U.S. 7 Pet. 243 243 (1833)

Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore

32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243

Syllabus

The provision in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States declaring that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation is intended solely as a limitation on the exercise of power by the Government of the United States, and is not applicable to the legislation of the States.

The Constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves, for their own government, and not for the government of individual States. Each State established a constitution for itself, and in that constitution provided such limitations and restrictions on the powers of its particular government as its judgment dictated. The people of the United States framed such a government for the United States as they supposed best adapted to their situation, and best calculated to promote their interests. The powers they conferred on this government were to be exercised by itself, and the limitations on power, if expressed in general terms, are naturally and necessarily applicable to the government created by the instrument. They are limitations of power granted in the instrument itself, not of distinct governments framed by different persons and for different purposes.

This case was instituted by the plaintiff in error, against the City of Baltimore, under its corporate title of "The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore," to recover damages for injuries to the wharf property of the plaintiff, arising from the acts of the corporation. Craig & Barron, of whom the plaintiff was survivor, were owners of an extensive and highly productive wharf in the eastern section of Baltimore, enjoying, at the period of their purchase of it, the deepest water in the harbor. The city, in the asserted exercise of its corporate authority over the harbor, the paving of streets, and regulating grades for paving, and over the health of Baltimore, diverted from their accustomed and natural course certain streams of water which flow from the range of hills bordering the city, and diverted them, partly by adopting new grades of streets, and partly by the necessary results of paving, and partly by mounds,

Page 32 U. S. 244

embankments and other artificial means purposely adapted to bend the course of the water to the wharf in question. These streams becoming very full and violent in rains, carried down with them from the hills and the soil over which they ran large masses of sand and earth, which they deposited along, and widely in front of the wharf of the plaintiff. The alleged consequence was that the water was rendered so shallow that it ceased to be useful for vessels of an important burden, lost its income, and became of little or no value as a wharf. This injury was asserted to have been inflicted by a series of ordinances of the corporation, between the years 1815 and 1821; and that the evil was progressive; and that it was active and increasing even at the institution of this suit in 1822.

At the trial of the cause in the Baltimore county court, the plaintiff gave evidence tending to prove the original and natural course of the streams, the various works of the corporation from time to time to turn them in the direction of this wharf, and the ruinous consequences of these measures to the interests of the plaintiff. It was not asserted by the defendants, that any compensation for the injury was ever made or proffered, but they justified under the authority they deduced from the charter of the city, granted by the legislature of Maryland, and under several acts of the legislature conferring powers on the corporation in regard to the grading and paving of streets, the regulation of the harbor and its waters, and to the health of the city. They also denied, that the plaintiff had shown any cause of action in the declaration, asserting that the injury complained of was a matter of public nuisance, and not of special or individual grievance in the eye of the law. This latter ground was taken on exception, and was also urged as a reason for a motion in arrest of judgment. On all points, the decision of Baltimore county court was against the defendants, and a verdict for $4,500 was rendered for the plaintiff. An appeal was taken to the court of appeals, which reversed the judgment of Baltimore county court, and did not remand the case to that court for a further trial. From this judgment, the defendant in the court of appeals prosecuted a writ of error to this court.

Page 32 U. S. 245

The counsel for the plaintiff presented the following points: the plaintiff in error will contend that apart from the legislative sanctions of the state of Maryland, and the acts of the corporation of Baltimore, holding out special encouragement and protection to interests in wharves constructed on the shores of the Patapsco river, and particularly of the wharf erected by Craig and the plaintiff, Barron; the right and profit of wharfage, and use of the water at the wharf, for the objects of navigation, was a vested interest and incorporeal hereditament, inviolable even by the state except on just compensation for the privation; but the act of assembly and the ordinance of the City are relied on as enforcing the claim to the undisturbed enjoyment of the right.

This right was interfered with, and the benefit of this property taken away from the plaintiff by the corporation avowedly, as the defence showed, for public use, for an object of public interest -- the benefit more immediately of the community of Baltimore, the individuals, part of the population of Maryland, known by the corporate title of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore. The "inhabitants" of Baltimore are thus incorporated by the Acts of 1796, ch. 68. As a corporation, they are made liable to be sued, and authorized to sue, to acquire and hold and dispose of property and, within the scope of the powers conferred by the charter, are allowed to pass ordinance and legislative acts, which it is declared by the charter shall have the same effect as acts of assembly, and be operative, provided they be not repugnant to the laws of the state, or the constitution of the state, or of the United States. The plaintiff will contend accordingly:

1. That the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, though viewed even as a municipal corporation, is liable for tort and actual misfeasance, and that it is a tort, and would be so even in the state, acting in her immediate sovereignty to deprive a citizen of his property, though for public uses, without indemnification; that, regarding the corporation as acting with the delegated power of the state, the act complained of is not the less an actionable tort.

2. That this is the case of an authority exercised under a

Page 32 U. S. 246

State, the corporation appealing to the legislative acts of Maryland for the discretional power which it has exercised.

3. That this exercise of authority was repugnant to the constitution of the United States, contravening the fifth article of the amendments to the constitution, which declares that "private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation," the plaintiff contending, that this article declares principles which regulate the legislation of the states for the protection of the people in each and all the states, regarded as citizens of the United States or as inhabitants subject to the laws of the Union.

4. That under the evidence, prayers, and pleadings in the case, the constitutionality of this authority exercised under the state must have been drawn in question, and that this court has appellate jurisdiction of the point, from the judgment of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the highest court of that state, that point being the essential ground of the plaintiff's pretention in opposition to the power and discussion of the corporation.

5. That this court, in such appellate cognisance, is not confined to the establishment of an abstract point of construction, but is empowered to pass upon the right or title of either party, and may therefore determine all points incidental or preliminary to the question of title and necessary in the course to that inquiry; that consequently, the question is for this court's determination whether the declaration avers actionable matter, or whether the complaint is only of a public nuisance, and on that head, the plaintiff will contend, that special damage is fully shown here, within the principle of the cases where an individual injury resulting from a public nuisance is deemed actionable, the wrong being merely public only so long as the law suffered in the particular case is no more than all members of the community suffer.

Upon these views, the plaintiff contends that the judgment of the court of appeals ought to be reversed.

Page 32 U. S. 247

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Primary Holding

The Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government rather than the states. The Court later would use the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to override this theory with respect to parts of the Bill of Rights.