St. Paul Gas Light Co. v. St. Paul
Annotate this Case
181 U.S. 142 (1901)
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U.S. Supreme Court
St. Paul Gas Light Co. v. St. Paul, 181 U.S. 142 (1901)
St. Paul Gas Light Co. v. St. Paul
Argued March 21, 1901
Decided April 16, 1901
181 U.S. 142
A bylaw or ordinance of a municipal corporation may be such an exercise of legislative power, delegated by the legislature as a political subdivision of the state, having all the force of law within the limits of the municipality, that it may properly be considered as a law within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
In this case, as no legislative act is shown to exist from the enforcement of which an impairment of the obligations of such a contract did or could result, it follows that the record involves solely an interpretation of the contract, and therefore presents no controversy within the jurisdiction of this Court.
The charter of the St. Paul Gas Light Company was granted in 1856, and it expires in 1907. The corporation was empowered to construct a plant to supply the City of St. Paul and its inhabitants with illuminating gas. It may be assumed, for the purposes of the question arising on this record, that the corporation discharged its duties properly under its charter, and that, from the time the charter became operative, the company has lighted the city in accordance with the contracts made for that purpose from time to time with the municipal authorities. The charter did not purport to engage permanently with the company for lighting the city, but provided for agreements to be entered into on that subject with the city for successive periods, and from the beginning of the charter, the parties did so stipulate for a specified time, a new contract supervening upon the termination of an expired one. It may also be assumed for the purposes of this case that the rights which the corporation asserts on this record were not foreclosed by any of the contracts which it made at different periods, with the city. The question which here arises concerns only section 9 of the charter, which is as follows:
"SEC. 9. That it shall be the duty of the St. Paul Gas Light Company to prosecute the works necessary to the lighting the whole city and suburbs with gas, and to lay their pipes in every and all directions, whenever the board of directors shall be satisfied that the expenses thereon shall be counterbalanced by the income accruing from the sales of gas. It shall also be their duty to put the gas works into successful operation as soon as practicable: Provided, That whenever the corporation of the City of St. Paul shall, by resolution of the board of aldermen, direct lamps to be erected and lighted in the streets of the city, the company shall make contract therefor, and furnish and provide, lay, set up, and keep in good repair at their own proper expense and charge the street posts and lamps, and their pipes and meters, all to be of the best quality of work and material now in use. In consideration whereof, the said corporation of the city shall pay quarterly to the St. Paul Gas Light Company an interest of eight percent per annum on the amount of the sum of the original cost of said street
lamps and lamp posts, gas meters and gas pipes, and the cost of laying and erecting the same. But said company shall not be bound to lay every pipe in such places where the proceeds from the sale of gaslight would not be sufficient to defray the expenses of furnishing the same."
Under the foregoing section, the gas company, by direction of the city, constructed street lamps, and up to January 1, 1897, they numbered 3,362. The interest on the cost of these lamps at the rate fixed by section 9, was regularly paid by the city up to January 1, 1897. About or shortly after that date, in certain portions of the city, the use of electricity for lighting the streets was by direction of the municipality substituted for gas, and hence the street gas lamps in those portions of the city which were lighted by electricity were no longer used. It is fairly to be deduced from the record that, either by its original charter or by amendments thereto, the gas company was empowered to supply electricity as well as gas, and in virtue of this power, it constructed an electrical plant and contracted with the city to supply the electric lights in those portions of the city where the use of gas had been dispensed with. The gas company asserted its right to recover from the city the interest on the cost of placing in position the lamps the use of which had been discontinued under the circumstances just above stated. The city denied its obligation to pay interest on account of the cost of these lamps. A the result of this disagreement, the city, in 1897, passed the following ordinance:
"Resolved, That the St. Paul Gas Light Company be and it is hereby required forthwith to remove the gas street lamp posts in that portion of the city now lighted by electric light under contract with said company, and which said lamps have been discontinued by order of the board of public works."
"Resolved further that the board of public works is hereby required to transmit to the city comptroller a statement showing the number and location of said gas street lamp posts not now in service in said electric light district above referred to, and that from and after the passage of this resolution, no interest be paid by the City of St. Paul to said St. Paul Gas Light
Company on account of the cost of the purchase and equipment of said gas street lamp posts."
Thereupon the gas company commenced this suit to recover the interest on the cost of the construction of the lamps referred to in the ordinance. Without going into unnecessary detail, it is adequate to say that the complaint alleged that the city was obliged by section 9 of the charter of the company to pay the interest on the cost of the lamps, although they were no longer in use for lighting purposes. The ordinance of the city which we have reproduced was expressly referred to in the complaint, and it was therein alleged that the ordinance, in legal purview, amounted to action by the state impairing the obligations of the contract embodied in section 9 of the charter, and was hence void because repugnant to the Constitution of the United States. After answer and due proceedings, the case was decided by the trial court in favor of the gas company. On appeal, the judgment of the trial court was reversed by the Supreme Court of Minnesota, and a final judgment was ordered against the gas company. 78 Minn. 39. To this judgment of the supreme court of the state this writ of error is prosecuted.