Martin v. Creasy
360 U.S. 219 (1959)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Martin v. Creasy, 360 U.S. 219 (1959)

Martin v. Creasy

No. 157

Argued April 2, 1959

Decided June 8, 1959

360 U.S. 219

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Syllabus

Respondents owned property abutting a section of highway in Pennsylvania which was about to be designated as a "limited access highway" under authority of a Pennsylvania statute which provides that the owners of property affected by the designation of a "limited access highway" shall be entitled "only to damages arising from an actual taking of property," and not for "consequential damages where no property is taken." They sued in a Federal District Court for injunctive relief and a judgment declaring the statute unconstitutional. The District Court stayed its proceedings to permit the parties to seek a determination of their rights under the Act in the state courts. They brought an equity suit in a state court, which held that the Act provides a method by which every property owner may have it decided whether he is entitled to compensation, and, if so, for what and in what amounts, and that their constitutional rights, whatever they may be, will be protected. The State Supreme Court affirmed. Thereafter, the District Court concluded that the State Legislature did not intend to compensate abutting landowners whose rights of access to an existing highway are destroyed by its designation as a limited access highway, and that the Act violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and it permanently enjoined the Governor and the Secretary of Highways from proceeding further.

Held: the circumstances were such that the District Court should have declined to adjudicate this controversy. Pp. 360 U. S. 220-225.

(a) The desirability of avoiding unseemly conflict between two sovereignties, the unnecessary impairment of state functions, and the premature determination of constitutional questions should have led the District Court to stay its hand. Pp. 360 U. S. 223-224.

(b) Another reason why the District Court should have stayed its hand is to be found in the complex and varying effects which the contemplated state action may have upon different landowners. Pp. 360 U. S. 224-225.

Page 360 U. S. 220

(c) There is no reason to suppose that the State will not accord full constitutional scope to the statutory phrase "actual taking of property"; but, should it fail to do so, recourse may be had to this Court. P. 360 U. S. 225.

160 F. Supp. 404, reversed.

Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE STEWART, announced by MR. JUSTICE WHITTAKER.

This action was instituted in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by owners of property abutting a section of highway which runs between downtown Pittsburgh and the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. The complaint stated that the Secretary of Highways and the Governor of Pennsylvania were about to designate that section of the road a "limited access highway" under authority of a Pennsylvania statute. Claiming that such action would deprive them of their property without due process of law, since the Pennsylvania statute allegedly did not provide compensation for loss of access to the highway, the plaintiffs asked for injunctive relief and for a judgment declaring the statute unconstitutional.

The legislation under which it was asserted the state officials were planning to act is the Pennsylvania Limited Access Highways Act of 1945. [Footnote 1] The Act defines a limited

Page 360 U. S. 221

access highway as "a public highway to which owners or occupants of abutting property or the traveling public have no right of ingress or egress to, from or across such highway, except as may be provided by the authorities responsible therefor." [Footnote 2] It authorizes the Secretary of Highways, with the approval of the Governor, to declare any highway, or part thereof, to be a limited access highway. [Footnote 3] Section 8 of the statute, as amended in 1947, provides:

"The owner or owners of private property affected by the construction or designation of a limited access highway . . . shall be entitled only to damages arising from an actual taking of property. The Commonwealth shall not be liable for consequential damages where no property is taken. . . ."

The latter section was specifically attacked by the plaintiffs, who claimed that, in the light of the Pennsylvania courts' interpretation of other statutes, this provision would be construed to mean that compensation was to be paid only if land were taken. The Limited Access Highways Act itself had never been construed by the courts of Pennsylvania.

The district judge issued a temporary restraining order. Thereafter, a three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284. After stipulations of fact were filed, the District Court entered an order staying proceedings to permit the parties to seek a determination of their rights under the statute in the courts of Pennsylvania.

Thereupon, the plaintiffs filed an equitable proceeding in the Common Pleas Court of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. That court pointed out that the plaintiffs were asking for a determination of

"whether or not a taking

Page 360 U. S. 222

of property has occurred and what damages shall be awarded therefor, and that, if the depriving them of access is found to be a taking of a compensable property right, that plaintiffs' legitimate interests will be constitutionally safeguarded by a resort to viewers proceedings and, if necessary, by later appeals to the courts."

Creasy v. Lawler, 8 Pa.Dist. & Co.R.2d 535, 537.

As a court of equity, the county court found it proper to determine only the last of these questions, and its answer was unequivocal:

"All of plaintiffs' rights can be protected and secured in a proceeding before viewers, as is provided in section 8 of The Limited Access Highways Act of May 29, 1945. . . . Here, the legislature, in The Limited Access Highways Act, . . . has provided a way in which every property owner may have it decided whether he is entitled to compensation and, if so, when, for what, and in what amounts. . . . Should the Commonwealth proceed, then at that time plaintiffs will have the right to proceed before viewers on the question of their right to damages. In the orderly course of the procedure provided by The Limited Access Highways Act, they will have a right of appeal to the common pleas court and a jury trial, and still later to have their rights adjudicated in the appellate courts. At all times, their constitutional rights, whatever they may be, will be guarded and protected."

8 Pa.Dist. & Co. R.2d 538 539. This decision was affirmed per curiam by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which explicitly adopted the lower court's opinion. 389 Pa. 635, 133 A.2d 178.

Further proceedings were then had in the District Court. Although stating its awareness

"that the federal courts should be reluctant to exercise jurisdiction in cases where the plaintiffs' constitutional rights will be properly

Page 360 U. S. 223

protected in the state tribunal and where the statute under attack has not yet been construed by the State Courts,"

nevertheless the District Court proceeded to adjudicate the merits of the controversy, believing that the plaintiffs might be irreparably harmed during the period required to determine their rights in the state courts. "Without venturing to predict the ultimate decision of the Pennsylvania Courts on the issue of compensation," the District Court was of the view that the Pennsylvania Legislature did not intend to compensate abutting landowners "whose right of access to an existing highway is destroyed by the designation of that highway as a limited access highway." For that reason, the court found the statute repugnant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A final decree was issued, permanently enjoining, in the most sweeping terms, the Secretary of Highways and the Governor from proceeding. Creasy v. Stevens, 160 F.Supp. 404, 409. [Footnote 4] The case is here by way of a direct appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1253, of which this Court noted probable jurisdiction. 358 U.S. 807.

It was the clear pronouncement of the Pennsylvania courts that the state statute provides a complete procedure to guard and protect the plaintiffs' constitutional rights "at all times." In the light of this pronouncement, it is difficult to perceive the basis for the District Court's conclusion that the plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed

Page 360 U. S. 224

unless the state officers were enjoined from proceeding under the statute. There is no question here of the State's right to create or designate a limited access highway. The only question is the plaintiffs' right to compensation. It must be assumed that the courts of Pennsylvania meant what they said in stating that the plaintiffs will be afforded a procedure through which the full measure of their rights under the United States Constitution will be preserved. Assuming, however, that there was a basis to support intervention by a court of equity, the District Court, we think, should nevertheless have declined to adjudicate this controversy.

The circumstances which should impel a federal court to abstain from blocking the exercise by state officials of their appropriate functions are present here in a marked degree. The considerations which support the wisdom of such abstention have been so thoroughly and repeatedly discussed by this Court as to require little elaboration. Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co.,312 U. S. 496; Chicago v. Fieldcrest Dairies,316 U. S. 168; Spector Motor Service Co. v. McLaughlin,323 U. S. 101; American Federation of Labor v. Watson,327 U. S. 582; Government Employees Organizing Committee v. Windsor,353 U. S. 364. See also Alabama Public Service Comm'n v. Southern R. Co.,341 U. S. 341. Reflected among the concerns which have traditionally counseled a federal court to stay its hand are the desirability of avoiding unseemly conflict between two sovereignties, the unnecessary impairment of state functions, and the premature determination of constitutional questions. All those factors are present here.

At least one additional reason for abstention in the present case is to be found in the complex and varying effects which the contemplated state action may have upon the different landowners. Some of them may be completely deprived of access; others may have access to existing roads or service roads to be constructed; still

Page 360 U. S. 225

others may have access to the highway itself through points of ingress and egress established under the statute. In the state court proceedings, the case of each landowner will be considered separately, with whatever particular problems each case may present.

There is no reason to suppose that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will not accord full constitutional scope to the statutory phrase "actual taking of property." [Footnote 5] If, after all is said and done in the Pennsylvania courts, any of the plaintiffs believe that the Commonwealth has deprived them of their property without due process of law, this Court will be here.

Reversed.

[Footnote 1]

1945, May 29, P.L. 1108, No. 402,

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