Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan
333 U.S. 28 (1948)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan, 333 U.S. 28 (1948)

Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan

No. 374

Argued December 16-17, 1947

Decided February 2, 1948

333 U.S. 28



1. Appellant, a Michigan corporation engaged chiefly in the round-trip transportation of passengers from Detroit to Bois Blanc Island, Canada, was convicted in a criminal prosecution under the Michigan Civil Rights Act for refusing passage to a Negro solely because of color.

Held: in view of the special local interest attaching to appellant's business in the particular circumstances of this case, such application of the state Act to the appellant, although engaged in foreign commerce, did not contravene the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution. Pp. 333 U. S. 29-40.

2. A decision of the highest court of the State that, as a matter of local law, the state statute was applicable to appellant's business is binding here upon review. P. 333 U. S. 33.

3. Appellant's transportation of passengers between Detroit, Michigan, and Bois Blanc Island, Canada, is foreign commerce within the scope of Art. I, § 8 of the Federal Constitution. P. 333 U. S. 34.

4. Hall v. DeCuir,95 U. S. 485, and Morgan v. Virginia,328 U. S. 373, distinguished. Pp. 333 U. S. 39-40.

317 Mich. 686, 27 N.W.2d 139, affirmed.

Appellant's conviction in a criminal prosecution for violation of the Michigan Civil Rights Act was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State. 317 Mich. 686, 27 N.W.2d 139. Upon appeal to this Court, affirmed, p. 333 U. S. 40.

Page 333 U. S. 29

MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Bois Blanc Island is part of the Province of Ontario, Canada. It lies just above the mouth of the Detroit River, some fifteen miles from Michigan's metropolis upstream. The island, known in Detroit by the corruption "Bob-Lo," has been characterized as that city's Coney Island.

Appellant owns almost all of Bois Blanc in fee. [Footnote 1] For many years, it has operated the island, during the summer seasons, as a place of diverse amusements for Detroit's varied population. Appellant also owns and operates two steamships for transporting its patrons of the island's attractions from Detroit to Bois Blanc and return. The vessels engage in no other business on these trips. [Footnote 2] No freight, mail, or express is carried; the only passengers are the patrons bent on pleasure, who board ship at Detroit;

Page 333 U. S. 30

they go on round-trip one-day limit [Footnote 3] tickets which include the privilege of landing at Bois Blanc and going back by a later boat. [Footnote 4] No intermediate stops are made on these excursions.

In conducting this business of amusement and transportation, appellant long has followed the policy, by advertisement and otherwise, to invite and encourage all comers except two classes. One is the disorderly; the other, colored people. [Footnote 5] From the latter exclusion, this case arises.

In June of 1945, Sarah Elizabeth Ray, the complaining witness, was employed by the Detroit Ordnance District. She and some forty other girls were also members of a class conducted at the Commerce High School under the auspices of the ordnance district. The class planned an excursion to Bois Blanc for June 21 under the district's sponsorship.

On that morning, thirteen girls with their teacher appeared at appellant's dock in Detroit to go on the outing. All were white except Miss Ray. Each girl paid eighty-five cents to one of the group, who purchased round-trip tickets and distributed them. The party then passed

Page 333 U. S. 31

through the gate, each member giving in her ticket without question from the ticket taker. They then checked their coats, went to the upper decks. and took chairs.

Shortly afterward Devereaux, appellant's assistant general manager, and a steward named Fox appeared and stated that Miss Ray could not go along, because she was colored. At first, she remonstrated against the discrimination, and refused to leave. But when it appeared she would be ejected forcibly, she said she would go. Devereaux and Fox then escorted her ashore, saying the company was a private concern and could exclude her if it wished. They took her to the ticket office and offered to return her fare. She refused to accept it, took their names, and left the company's premises. There is no suggestion that she or any member of her party was guilty of unbecoming conduct. Nor is there any dispute concerning the facts.

This criminal prosecution followed in the Recorder's Court for Detroit, for violation of the Michigan civil rights act [Footnote 6] in the discrimination practiced against Miss Ray. Jury trial being formally waived, the court, after hearing evidence and argument, found appellant guilty as charged and sentenced it to pay a fine of $25. [Footnote 7] On appeal, the Supreme Court of Michigan affirmed the judgment, holding the statute applicable to the circumstances presented by the case and valid in that application, as against the constitutional and other objections put forward. 317 Mich. 686, 27 N.W.2d 139. In due course, probable jurisdiction was noted here. Judicial Code, § 237(a).

Page 333 U. S. 32

The Michigan civil rights Act, § 146, enacts:

"All persons within the jurisdiction of this state shall be entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, hotels, restaurants, eating houses, barber shops, billiard parlors, stores, public conveyances on land and water, theaters, motion picture houses, public educational institutions, in elevators, on escalators, in all methods of air transportation and all other places of public accommodation, amusement, and recreation, where refreshments are or may hereafter be served, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all citizens and to all citizens alike, with uniform prices. [Footnote 8]"

By § 147, any owner, lessee, proprietor, agent or employee of any such place who directly or indirectly withholds any accommodation secured by § 146, on account of race, creed or color, becomes guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable as the section states, and liable to a civil action for treble damages. [Footnote 9]

Page 333 U. S. 33

The Michigan statute is one of the familiar type enacted by many states before and after this Court's invalidation of Congress' similar legislation in the Civil Rights Cases,109 U. S. 3. [Footnote 10] The Michigan Supreme Court held the statute applicable to appellant's business over its objection that, as a matter of local law, it is not a "public conveyance" within the meaning of § 146. [Footnote 11] We accept this conclusion of the state court as a matter of course. That court also impliedly rejected appellant's

Page 333 U. S. 34

constitutional objections based upon alleged denial of due process of law and equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, issues now eliminated from the case. [Footnote 12]

We have therefore only to consider the single and narrow question whether the state courts correctly held that the commerce clause, Art. I, § 8, of the Federal Constitution does not forbid applying the Michigan civil rights act to sustain appellant's conviction. We agree with their determination.

There can be no doubt that appellant's transportation of its patrons is foreign commerce within the scope of Art. I, § 8. [Footnote 13] Lord v. Goodall Steamship Co.,102 U. S. 541; cf. Edwards v. California,314 U. S. 160. Appellant's vessels sail to and from a port or place in foreign territory wholly under another nation's sovereignty. They cross the international boundary, which is the thread of the Detroit River, several times in the course of each short

Page 333 U. S. 35

trip. Appellant necessarily complies with federal regulations applicable to foreign commerce, including those governing customs, immigration, and navigation matters. It likewise satisfies similar regulations of the Canadian authorities. [Footnote 14]

Of course, we must be watchful of state intrusion into intercourse between this country and one of its neighbors. But if any segment of foreign commerce can be said to have a special local interest, apart from the necessity of safeguarding the federal interest in such matters as immigration, customs, and navigation, the transportation of appellant's patrons falls in that characterization. It would be hard to find a substantial business touching foreign soil of more highly local concern. Except for the small fenced-off portion reserved for the lighthouse and three cottage sites, [Footnote 15] the island is economically and socially, though not politically, an amusement adjunct of the city of Detroit. Not only customs and immigrations regulations of both countries, but physical barriers prevent intercourse, both commercial and social, between Canadians and appellant's patrons, except as the former may come first by other means to Detroit, then go to the island from American soil on appellant's vessels, and return from the holiday by the same roundabout route.

Page 333 U. S. 36

The record indicates there are no established means of access from the Canadian shore to the island. There is no evidence of even surreptitious entry from the Canadian mainland. Appellant's vessels not only are the sole meas of transportation to and from the island, but carry only its own patrons of Bois Blanc's recreational facilities. These travel exclusively on round-trip tickets for passage beginning and ending on American soil. They are principally residents of Detroit and vicinity. All go aboard there and return the same day. None goes from the island to the Canadian bank of the river. The only business conducted at the island is the operation of appellant's recreational and accessory facilities, which apparently do not include provision for overnight guests. No other persons than appellant's patrons come to the island, or have a right to come, from Canada's mainland or elsewhere, or go from the island to Detroit.

The sum of these facts makes Bois Blanc an island in more than the geographic sense. They insulate it and appellant's business done in connection with it from all commercial or social intercourse and traffic with the people of another country usually characteristic of foreign commerce, in short, from the normal flow and incidents of such commerce. Since the enterprise is conducted in this highly closed and localized manner with Canada's full consent, no detraction whatever from that friendly neighbor's sovereignty is implied by saying that the business itself is economically and socially an island of local Detroit business, although so largely carried on in Canadian waters. As now conducted, apart from presently applicable Canadian and federal regulations and until Canada or Congress or both countries by treaty see fit to add others, the business is of greater concern to Detroit and the Michigan than to Dominion or Ontario interests or to those of the United States in regulating our foreign commerce.

Page 333 U. S. 37

The regulation in this application contains nothing out of harmony, much less inconsistent, with our federal policy in the regulation of commerce between the two countries, nor, so far as we are advised, with Canadian law and policy. [Footnote 16] Appellant urges, however, that Canada might adopt regulations in conflict with Michigan's civil rights act, thus placing it in an inescapable dilemma if that act may be applied to its operations. Conceding the possibility, we think the state is right in viewing it as so remote that it is hardly more than conceivable. The same thing, we think, is true of the possibility that Congress might take conflicting action.

If, therefore, in any case, a state may regulate foreign commerce, the facts here would seem clearly to justify Michigan's application of her civil rights act. It is far too late to maintain that the states possess no regulatory powers over such commerce. From the first meeting of Congress, they have regulated important phases of both foreign and interstate commerce, particularly in relation to transportation by water, with Congress' express consent. [Footnote 17]

Page 333 U. S. 38

And, without such consent, for nearly a hundred years they have exercised like power under the local diversity branch of the formula announced in Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 12 How. 299. [Footnote 18] See Union Brokerage Co. v. Jensen,322 U. S. 202; Kelly v. Washington,302 U. S. 1, and authorities cited in both cases. Indeed, the Cooley criterion has been applied so frequently in cases concerning only commerce among the several states that it is often forgotten that that historic decision dealt indiscriminately with such commerce and foreign commerce. [Footnote 19]

Page 333 U. S. 39

Appellant hardly suggests that the power of Congress over foreign commerce excludes all regulation by the states. But it verges on that view in regarding Hall v. DeCuir,95 U. S. 485, supplemented by Morgan v. Virginia,328 U. S. 373, and Pryce v. Swedish-American Lines, 30 F.Supp. 371, as flatly controlling this case. We need only say that no one of those decisions is comparable in its facts, whether in the degree of localization of the commerce involved, in the attenuating effects, if any, upon the commerce with foreign nations and among the several states likely to be produced by applying the state regulation, or in any actual probability of conflicting regulations by different sovereignties. None involved so completely and locally insulated a segment of foreign or interstate commerce. [Footnote 20] In none was the business affected merely an adjunct of a single locality or community, as is the business here so largely. And in none was a complete exclusion from passage made. The Pryce case, of course, is not authority in this Court, and we express no opinion on the problem it presented. The regulation of traffic along the

Page 333 U. S. 40

Mississippi River, such as the Hall case comprehended, and of interstate motor carriage of passengers by common carriers, like that in the Morgan case, are not factually comparable to this regulation of appellant's highly localized business, and those decisions are not relevant here.

It is difficult to imagine what national interest or policy, whether of securing uniformity in regulating commerce, affecting relations with foreign nations, or otherwise, could reasonably be found to be adversely affected by applying Michigan's statute to these facts, or to outweigh her interest in doing so. Certainly there is no national interest which overrides the interest of Michigan to forbid the type of discrimination practiced here. And, in view of these facts, the ruling would be strange indeed, to come from this Court, that Michigan could not apply her long-settled policy against racial and creedal discrimination to this segment of foreign commerce, so peculiarly and almost exclusively affecting her people and institutions.

The Supreme Court of Michigan concluded

"that holding the provisions of the Michigan statute effective and applicable in the instant case results only in this -- defendant will be required in operating its ships as 'public conveyances' to accept as passengers persons of the negro race indiscriminately with others. Our review of this record does not disclose that such a requirement will impose any undue burden on defendant in its business in foreign commerce."

317 Mich. 686, 694, 27 N.W.2d 139, 142. Those conclusions were right.

The judgment is


[Footnote 1]

A small fenced-off tract at one end is reserved for lighthouse purposes, and three small cottage lots. Appellant is a Michigan corporation, authorized by its charter to

"lease, own and operate amusement parks in Canada, and to charter, lease, own and operate excursion steamers and ferry boats in interstate and foreign commerce, together with dock and terminal facilities pertaining thereto,"

as well as to acquire, own, use and dispose of real and personal property "as may be necessary or convenient in connection with the aforesaid business of the company."

[Footnote 2]

The record shows that, at times during the season, appellant uses these ships to provide excursion trips for residents of the Province of Ontario, but these excursions are kept entirely separate from those between Detroit and Bois Blanc, and we are concerned with no question relating to them.

[Footnote 3]

Apparently no facilities are provided at the island for overnight guests.

[Footnote 4]

The company fixes its own rates. The usual round-trip charge is 85

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