Establishing and maintaining a public yard for the sale of wood,
coal, and other fuel, without financial profit, to the inhabitants
of a municipality held
a public purpose for which taxes
may be levied without violating the Fourteenth Amendment.
Revised Statutes of Maine, 1903, c. 4, § 87, sustained.
113 Me. 123 affirmed.
The case is stated in the opinion.
Page 245 U. S. 220
MR. JUSTICE DAY delivered the opinion of the Court.
By an act of the Legislature of the State of Maine approved
March 19, 1903, P.L. 1903, c. 122; § 87, c. 4, Revised Statutes of
Maine, 1903, it was provided:
"Any city or town may establish and maintain, within its limits,
a permanent wood, coal, and fuel yard for the purpose of selling at
cost wood, coal, and fuel to its inhabitants. The term 'at cost' as
used herein, shall be construed as meaning without financial
The City of Portland, Maine, voted to establish and maintain
within its limits a permanent coal and fuel yard for the purposes
of selling at cost wood, coal, and fuel to its inhabitants, and
that the money necessary for such purposes be raised by taxation,
and that the term "at cost" as used in said vote should be
construed as meaning without financial profit. On February 3, 1913,
the common council of the city, at a legal meeting, passed the
vote, and on the same date it was passed by the board of aldermen
of the city, and on February 4, 1913, the mayor of the city
approved it, whereupon it became the vote of the City of Portland.
The city voted to appropriate the sum of $1,000 to be devoted to
carrying out the purposes of the vote, and the appropriation was
passed by the common council, the board of aldermen, and approved
by the mayor of the city.
This suit was brought by citizens and taxpayers of Portland in
the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine in equity to enjoin the
establishment of the yard. The Supreme Judicial Court sustained a
demurrer to the bill, and dismissed it. 113 Me. 123. A writ of
error brings the case here because of alleged violation of rights
Page 245 U. S. 221
to the plaintiffs in error by the Fourteenth Amendment. The
contention is that the establishment of the municipal wood yard is
not a public purpose, that taxation to accomplish that end amounts
to the taking of the property of the plaintiffs in error without
due process of law.
The decision of the case turns upon the answer to the question
whether the taxation is for a public purpose. It is well settled
that moneys for other than public purposes cannot be raised by
taxation, and that exertion of the taxing power for merely private
purposes is beyond the authority of the state. Citizens'
Saving & Loan Assn. v. Topeka,
The act in question has the sanction of the legislative branch
of the state government, the body primarily invested with authority
to determine what laws are required in the public interest. That
the purpose is a public one has been determined upon full
consideration by the Supreme Judicial Court of the state upon the
authority of a previous decision of that court. Laughlin v.
City of Portland,
111 Me. 486.
The attitude of this Court towards state legislation purporting
to be passed in the public interest, and so declared to be by the
decision of the court of last resort of the state passing the act,
has often been declared. While the ultimate authority to determine
the validity of legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment is
rested in this Court, local conditions are of such varying
character that what is or is not a public use in a particular state
is manifestly a matter respecting which local authority,
legislative and judicial, has peculiar facilities for securing
accurate information. In that view, the judgment of the highest
court of the state upon what should be deemed a public use in a
particular state is entitled to the highest respect. Hairston
v. Danville & Western Ry. Co., 208 U.
, 208 U. S. 607
In Union Lime
Page 245 U. S. 222
v. Chicago & N.W. Ry. Co., 233 U.
, this Court declared that a decision of the
highest court of the state declaring a use to be public in its
nature would be accepted unless clearly not well founded, citing
Fallbrook Irrigation District v. Bradley, 164 U.
, 164 U. S. 160
Clark v. Nash, 198 U. S. 361
198 U. S. 369
Strickley v. Highland Boy Mining Co., 200 U.
, 200 U. S. 531
Offield v. N.Y., N.H. & H.R. Co., 203 U.
, 203 U. S. 377
Hairston v. Danville & Western Ry. Co., 208 U.
, 208 U. S. 607
This doctrine was reiterated in O'Neill v. Leamer,
239 U. S. 244
239 U. S.
In the case of Laughin v. City of Portland,
the matter was fully considered by the Supreme
Judicial Court of that state. After reviewing the cases which
establish the general authority of municipalities in the interest
of the public health, convenience, and welfare to make provisions
for supplying the inhabitants of such communities with water,
light, and heat by means adequate for that purpose, the court came
to consider the distinction sought to be made between the cases
which sustain the authority of the state to authorize municipal
action for the purposes stated, and the one under consideration,
because of the fact that, in the instances in which municipal
authority had been sustained, the use of the public streets and
highways for mains, poles, and wires in the distribution of water,
light, and heat had been required under public authority, whereas,
in supplying fuel to consumers under the terms of the law in
question, no such permission was essential, the court said (111 Me.
"Let us look at the question from a practical and concrete
standpoint. Can it make any real and vital difference and convert a
public into a private use if, instead of burning the fuel at the
power station to produce the electricity, or at the central heating
plant to produce the heat and then conducting it in the one case by
wires and in the other by pipes to the user's home, the coal
Page 245 U. S. 223
itself is hauled over the same highway to the same point of
distribution? We fail to see it. It is only a different and simpler
mode of distribution, and, if the legislature has the power to
authorize municipalities to furnish heat to its inhabitants, 'it
can do this by any appropriate means which it may think expedient.'
The vital and essential element is the character of the service
rendered, and not the means by which it is rendered. It seems
illogical to hold that a municipality may relieve its citizens from
the rigor of cold if it can reach them by pipes or wires placed
under or above the highways, but not if it can reach them by teams
traveling along the identically same highway. It will be something
of a task to convince the ordinarily intelligent citizen that an
act of the legislature authorizing the former is constitutional,
but one authorizing the latter is unconstitutional beyond all
rational doubt. For we must remember that we are considering the
existence of the power in the legislature, which is the only
question before the court, and not the wisdom of its exercise which
is for the legislature alone."
Answering the objection that sustaining the act in question
opens the door to the exercise of municipal authority to conduct
other lines of business and commercial activity to the destruction
of private business, the court said (111 Me. 500):
"But, it is urged, why, if a city can establish a municipal fuel
yard, can it not enter upon any kind of commercial business, and
carry on a grocery store, or a meat market, or a bakery. The answer
has been already indicated. Such kinds of business do not measure
up to either of the accepted tests. When we speak of fuel, we are
dealing not with ordinary articles of merchandise for which there
may be many substitutes, but with an indispensable necessity of
life, and, more than this, the commodities mentioned are admittedly
under present economic conditions regulated by competition in the
ordinary channels of private
Page 245 U. S. 224
business enterprise. The principle that municipalities can
neither invade private liberty nor encroach upon the field of
private enterprise should be strictly maintained, as it is one of
the main foundations of our prosperity and success. If the case at
bar clearly violated that principle, it would be our duty to
pronounce the act unconstitutional, but, in our opinion, it does
not. The element of commercial enterprise is entirely lacking. The
purpose of the act is neither to embark in business for the sake of
direct profits (the act provides that fuel shall be furnished at
cost) nor for the sake of the indirect gains that may result to
purchasers through reduction in price by governmental competition.
It is simply to enable the citizens to be supplied with something
which is a necessity in its absolute sense to the enjoyment of life
and health, which could otherwise be obtained with great
difficulty, and at times perhaps not at all, and whose absence
would endanger the community as a whole."
Bearing in mind that it is not the function of this Court under
the authority of the Fourteenth Amendment to supervise the
legislation of the states in the exercise of the police power
beyond protecting against exertions of such authority in the
enactment and enforcement of laws of an arbitrary character, having
no reasonable relation to the execution of lawful purposes, we are
unable to say that the statute now under consideration violates
rights of the taxpayer by taking his property for uses which are
The authority to furnish light and water by means of municipally
owned plants has long been sanctioned as the accomplishment of a
public purpose justifying taxation with a view to making provision
for their establishment and operation. The right of a municipality
to promote the health, comfort, and convenience of its inhabitants
by the establishment of a plant for the distribution of natural gas
for heating purposes was sustained, and we think properly so, in
Ohio v. Toledo,
Page 245 U. S. 225
Ohio St. 112. We see no reason why the state may not, if it sees
fit to do so, authorize a municipality to furnish heat by such
means as are necessary and such systems as are proper for its
distribution. Heat is as indispensable to the health and comfort of
the people as is light or water. In any event, we are not prepared
to say that, when a state authorizes a municipality to tax with a
view to providing heat at cost to the inhabitants of the city, and
that purpose is declared by the highest court of the state to be a
public one, that the property of a citizen who is taxed to effect
such purpose is taken in violation of rights secured by the
Constitution of the United States. As this view decides the
questions open to consideration, it follows that the judgment of
the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine must be affirmed.