Bridge Proprietors v. Hoboken Company
68 U.S. 116

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bridge Proprietors v. Hoboken Company, 68 U.S. 1 Wall. 116 116 (1863)

Bridge Proprietors v. Hoboken Company

68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 116

Syllabus

1. Where a statute of a state creates a contract, and a subsequent statute is alleged to impair the obligation of that contract, and the highest court of law or equity in the state construes the first statute in such a manner as that the second statute does not impair it, whereby the second statute remains valid under the Constitution of the United States, the validity of the second statute is "drawn in question" and the decision is "in favor" of its validity within the meaning of the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789. This Court may accordingly, under the said section, reexamine and reverse the judgment or decree of the state court given as before said. The case distinguished from Commercial Bank v. Buckingham's Executors, 5 How. 317, GRIER, J., dissenting.

2. A party relying on this Court for reexamination and reversal of the decree or judgment of the highest state court under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 need not set forth specially the clause of the Constitution of the United States on which he relies. If the pleadings make a case which necessarily comes within the provisions of the Constitution, it is enough.

3. The statute of the Legislature of New Jersey, passed A.D. 1790, by which that state gave power to certain commissioners to contract with any persons for the building of a bridge over the Hackensack River, and by the same statute enacted that the "said contract should be valid on the parties contracting as well as on the State of New Jersey," and that it should not be "lawful" for any person or persons whatsoever to erect "any other bridge over or across the said river for ninety-nine years," is a contract whose obligation the state can pass no law to impair.

Page 68 U. S. 117

4. A railway viaduct, if nothing but a structure made so as to lay iron rails thereon, upon which engines and cars may be moved and propelled by steam, not to be connected with the shore on either side of said river except by a piece of timber under each rail and in such a manner as near as may be so as to make it impossible for man or beast to cross said river upon said structure except in railway cars [the only roadway between said shores and said structure being two or more iron rails two and a quarter inches wide, four and a half inches high, laid and fastened upon said timber four feet ten inches asunder], is not a "bridge" within the meaning of the act of New Jersey, passed A.D. 1790, and just mentioned, CATRON, J., dissenting. And the act of assembly of that same state, passed A.D. 1860, authorizing a company to build a railway, with the necessary viaduct, over the Hackensack does not impair the obligation of the contract made by the aforesaid act of 1700.

The Judiciary Act (§ 25) provides that a final decree in the highest court of equity in a state

"where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of . . . any state on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, and the decision is in favor of such validity, may be reexamined and reversed"

in this Court. And the Constitution of the United States provides that "No state shall pass any . . . law impairing the obligation of contracts."

With these provisions in force, the State of New Jersey passed, A.D. 1790, an act creating a turnpike company from Newark to Powles Hook (near New York), and authorizing commissioners to fix suitable sites for building bridges over the Rivers Passaic and Hackensack and to cause to be erected a bridge over each river, with a right to take toll from classes of persons and things enumerated in the act, and which may be summed up shortly as persons on foot, animals and vehicles crossing the bridge. The statute enacted,

"That it should be lawful for the commissioners to contract with persons who would undertake the same for such toll, or for so many years, and upon such conditions, as in their discretion should appear expedient,"

and further

"That the said contract should be valid and binding on the parties contracting as well as on the State of New Jersey, and as effectual, to all intents and purposes whatever as if the same and every part, covenant, and condition therein contained had been particularly and expressly set forth and enacted in this law."

It was further

Page 68 U. S. 118

enacted

"That it should not be lawful for any person or persons whatsoever to erect or cause to be erected [within certain limits specified] any other bridge or bridges over or across the said river, provided always that if the said commissioners shall refuse or neglect for the space of four years to cause to be erected the said bridges, in pursuance of this act, or when erected, to maintain and support them, then it shall and may be lawful for the legislature of this state to repeal or alter this act and to enact such other law or laws touching or concerning the premises herein enacted, as to them, in their wisdom, shall appear equitable and expedient."

In 1793, the commissioners contracted with one Ogden and others his associates for the erection of the bridges authorized, and demised them the said Ogden and his associates until November 24, A.D. 1889, with a right to levy tolls as fixed in the contract. In 1797, the Legislature of New Jersey created the said Ogden and his associates a corporation, which corporation the complainants below, the present plaintiffs in error, now were.

In 1860, the Legislature of New Jersey, by statute, authorized another company altogether, to-wit, the Hoboken Land & Improvement Company, the defendants in this case, to construct a railroad from the same town, Newark, to Hoboken (opposite New York), and to build the necessary "viaducts" over these same Passaic and Hackensack Rivers. And the statute enacted that if unable to agree with the parties owning or claiming them, it should be lawful for the company to

"take and appropriate, use, and exercise, or cause to be taken and appropriated and exercised, so much of all rights, privileges, franchises, property, and bridges or viaducts, or such parts thereof as may be necessary to enable the said company to construct said railroad and branches, first making or causing to be made compensation therefor as hereinafter provided. Provided that nothing in this act shall authorize or empower the said company to construct more than one bridge over each of the Rivers Hackensack or Passaic, and the bridge

Page 68 U. S. 119

over the Hackensack to be twelve hundred feet, river measure, from any other bridge. [Footnote 1]"

Under the authority of the act of 1860, the Hoboken Company now began to erect their "structure" for carrying their railway across the Hackensack River, and inside of those limits within which the bridge proprietors considered that the act of 1790 gave them exclusive privilege of bridges.

Page 68 U. S. 120

This was done without the consent of the bridge proprietors and without condemning the value of their right of franchise.

The proprietors of the bridges over the rivers &c., hereupon filed a bill in the Court of Chancery praying an injunction and general relief. The bill set out the act of 1790, authorizing the commissioners to lease out the privilege of building, and the bridge when built, for a term of years, and that it enacted that no person, during 99 years, should erect any other bridge over the river within the limits in question; that the commissioners had leased their privilege for 99 years to Ogden and his associates, who had built the bridges, the incorporation &c. It then proceeded to insist thus:

"That the said act and said lease, and all the stipulations and provisions and enactments in them and either of them contained, became a contract between the state and said party of the second part to said lease, who are now represented by your orators, and by the same the state became held and bound to and contracted with said party of the second part, and are now, by force of such contract, held and bound to your orators, as provided in the act, that no persons whatever should erect any other bridge or bridges than that erected by laid lessees and now belonging to your orators. And your orators insist that the state cannot by any law violate, void or impair said contract, even upon providing and making compensation for the damages sustained thereby."

It next set out several statutes which it charged recognized these rights, and then the act of 1860, and alleged that thereby the defendants were authorized to construct a railroad and to erect viaducts or bridges over the Hackensack River and to take and appropriate property, rights, franchises &c., necessary to construct the railroad. It further set out the sections providing compensation for the franchises taken (see ante, p. <|68 U.S. 119|>119, note), and that one section of the act, the first, recognized the complainants' right as still existing. The bill set forth further that the defendants had commenced to build a bridge within the prohibited limits and that the complainants had not given their consent to

Page 68 U. S. 121

this; nor the defendants tendered any compensation for the violation of their contract with the state.

It insisted

"that there exists no such public necessity for building a bridge within the prohibited limits as warrants or requires the violation of the contract -- even had the state the power to pass a law impairing the obligation of a contract; that there exists no public necessity for the construction of the defendants' railroad such as to authorize the taking of the property and franchises of other persons or corporations."

It submitted

"that there does not exist that kind of public necessity which requires or justifies taking private property for public use or the abrogation of a contract."

As respected the contract, the bill charged on the defendants as follows:

"And they sometimes give out and pretend that the state is not held and bound by any contract to or with your orators that no other bridge shall be erected within said limits, whereas your orators charge the contrary to be true, and that the state is held and firmly bound to your orators by their contract that no bridge shall be erected within said limits before the 24th day of November, 1889."

The bill prayed the defendants might be restrained from building the bridge commenced, and for general relief and injunction.

The answer, admitting that "of course the obligation of no contract can be impaired," declared "that the defendant does not pretend that any public necessity requires the violation of any contract," and it set up several defenses.

1. That by the act of 1790, the state did "not contract," and therefore the defendant "denied" the allegation that it had done so, adding an admission, "that the said lease was a contract by which the state was bound," and an allegation that

"this defendant is advised and insists, that it is the only contract between the state and the said lessees, or their alienees (if any), and was by said law declared to be the contract by which the state was to be bound. "

Page 68 U. S. 122

2. That the prohibitory language, "it shall not be lawful for any persons to erect any other bridge," &c., in the act of 1790, was not in restraint of the legislature.

3. That any contract in the act of 1790 was discharged by a nonperformance of the conditions precedent contained in the act.

4. That the structure of the defendant is not a bridge in the sense that the word "bridge" is used in the act of 1790; that it would differ from a bridge in these particulars:

a. "It will not," the answer averred,

"be connected with the shore on either side of the river except by a piece of timber under each rail, and must necessarily be made so as to make it impossible for man or beast to cross said river upon the viaduct except in defendant's cars."

b. "The only roadway," it was further asserted,

"between said shores and said structure, will be two or more iron rails, each of the width of two and one-quarter inches, and of the height of about four and one-half inches, laid and fastened upon timber, said rails being at a distance of four feet asunder."

c. "It will be impossible," it was finally said,

"for any vehicle or animal which can cross the river upon the bridge of complainants to cross the same upon the railroad of defendant, and no foot passenger can cross the same with safety; nor is it intended that any foot passenger shall, but on the contrary, the said railroad across the said river shall and will be so constructed, and this defendant intends to construct the same in such manner that no vehicle can cross the said river on the said road or viaduct of the defendant, except locomotive engines and railroad cars resting, and which must necessarily move, upon iron rails, and cannot move upon any bridge which was known or used in the year 1790 or up to the time of the incorporation of the complainants and long after, and in such manner that no foot passenger or animal can cross said river on the railroad viaduct of the defendant."

5. The answer asserted, that any contract in the act of 1790 was discharged by the nonperformance of conditions subsequent.

6. That the complainants had no assignment of the lease,

Page 68 U. S. 123

i.e., had not a particular evidence of the right to claim the benefit of the act of 1790.

7. That the exclusive franchise conferred by the prohibition contained in the act of 1790 had been destroyed by the complainants' own acts, admitted in the bill, in consenting to other bridges within the prohibited limits.

8. That a court of equity would not restrain by injunction the making of a bridge like that which the Hoboken Company proposed to make, and on which railroad cars alone could pass, if the complainants had an exclusive right and would not exercise it.

The case was argued below, as it was here also, on bill and answer only.

The opinion of the chancellor below, which, however, was no part of the record nor strictly in evidence here, was given at length. In stating what he considered the points before him to be, he said,

"The material issues are:"

"1. Whether the complainants have, by virtue of a contract with the state, the exclusive franchise of maintaining a bridge across the Hackensack River &c.?"

"2. Whether the structure which the defendants are engaged in erecting is a violation of the complainants' franchise?"

After an argument on the first point, he concluded:

"I am of opinion, therefore, that the proprietors of the bridges over the Rivers Passaic and Hackensack have, by contract with the state, the exclusive franchise of maintaining said bridges, and taking tolls thereon, and that such contract is within the protection of that provision of the Constitution, which declares that no law shall be passed impairing the obligation of contracts."

And he adds:

"The remaining inquiry is whether the structure which the defendants are erecting is a violation of the complainants' right?"

After an argument on this, the second point, to show that a viaduct such as the defendants proposed to construct was

Page 68 U. S. 124

not a "bridge" within the meaning of the act of 1790, he concludes:

"Applying to this contract the ordinary rules of interpretation, having regard to the subject matter of the contract itself, considering that it related solely to the travel upon ordinary highways by methods then known and used, and that the complainants' franchise extended only to such travel, the construction of a railroad bridge for the sole accommodation of railroad travel cannot be deemed an infringement of the complainants' right."

In the Court of Errors and Appeals, where only one or two of the judges spoke, the course of argument was much the same as with the chancellor.

The decree in the Court of Chancery was a simple dismissal, thus: "The chancellor being of opinion that the complainants are not entitled to restrain the defendants from building the bridge or structure complained of," therefore it is ordered &c., that the bill be dismissed.

The decree in the Court of Errors and Appeals was a simple affirmance, the language being that

"The cause coming on to be heard, and the matter having been debated &c., and the court having advised &c., it is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed, that the decree of the chancellor be in all things affirmed, with costs."

On appeal to this Court from the Court of Errors and Appeals of New Jersey -- "the highest court of equity" in that "state," -- the questions were:

I. Whether this Court had jurisdiction? -- that is to say whether there had been drawn in question in the state courts of New Jersey the validity of a statute of that state on the ground that it violated the obligation of a contract, the decision being in favor of the statute.

II. If the Court had jurisdiction, and so could reexamine and reverse the decision below, whether there was any ground for the reversal of the same, the points raised under the second being,

1. Whether there was ever meant to be any contract at all? If so,

Page 68 U. S. 125

2. Whether it was a contract such as bound legislatures of this day? If so,

3. Whether a "viaduct," such as was here proposed, was a "bridge" within the meaning of that contract?

Page 68 U. S. 141

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