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NEWBURYPORT WATER COMPANY v. NEWBURYPORT

April 4, 1904

NEWBURYPORT WATER COMPANY
v.
NEWBURYPORT



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, White, Peckham, McKenna, Holmes, Day

Author: White

[ 193 U.S. Page 575]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

At the threshold we are met with the objection, raised below and urged at bar, that the Circuit Court was without jurisdiction, because the bill on its face did not state a case arising

[ 193 U.S. Page 576]

     under the Constitution or laws of the United States, within the intendment of the act of August 13, 1888. 25 Stat. 433. As the case is here on direct appeal from the decree of the Circuit Court of the United States, the solution of this question necessarily involves also deciding whether the cause was properly brought to this court. As the existence of the constitutional question is the only basis of the right to the direct appeal, if there was no such question in the court below there was and is no such issue by which the direct appeal to this court can be sustained. Under these circumstances, if the contention as to want of jurisdiction of the court below, arising from the alleged absence of constitutional questions, be well founded, our duty is not simply to dismiss the appeal, but to reverse the decree below with instructions to the Circuit Court to dismiss the bill for want of jurisdiction. Defiance Water Company v. Defiance, 191 U.S. 184.

If jurisdiction is to be determined by the mere fact that the bill alleged constitutional questions, there was, of course, jurisdiction. But that is not the sole criterion. On the contrary, it is settled that jurisdiction does not arise simply because an averment is made as to the existence of a constitutional question, if it plainly appears that such averment is not real and substantial, but is without color of merit. Underground Railroad v. City of New York, 193 U.S. 416; Arbuckle v. Blackburn, 191 U.S. 405; Owensboro v. Owensboro Waterworks Co., 191 U.S. 358; Defiance Water Co. v. Defiance, 191 U.S. 184; Swafford v. Templeton, 185 U.S. 487; McCain v. Des Moines, 174 U.S. 168, 181, and cases cited. Whether the Constitution of the United States was and is, in a real and substantial sense, involved depends upon apparently two considerations; First, the proposition that the sale made by the company to the city was compulsory, and hence there was a taking of the property in disregard of due process of law; and, second, that the failure of the commissioners to value the future profits arising from the contract for the furnishing for fires of a water supply to the city impaired the obligations of the company's contract. We

[ 193 U.S. Page 577]

     say apparently two, since the questions are virtually one, depending both on the same considerations.

Now, it is conceded that the charter of the water company was not exclusive, and was subject to repeal, alteration or amendment at the will of the legislature. This being the case, it is evident that no deprivation of property without due process of law or impairment of the obligations of a contract did or could arise from the act of the legislature empowering the city to erect its own waterworks. Having this power, the legislature could therefore have exercised it without compelling the city to buy the plant of the water company, and the bill proceeds upon the theory that if this right had been exerted by the legislature the company would have been ruined, and the value of its property in effect entirely destroyed. This follows, because the averments are based upon the assumption that the conveyance by the company of its property to the city was not voluntary, since, if it had not so conveyed, the exercise by the city of the right to construct its own plant would have destroyed the company's property. The contentions, therefore, as to the Constitution of the United States are based solely upon the proposition that because the legislature sought to protect the company and save its property from ruin by conferring upon it the privilege of selling its property to the city, if it chose to do so, thereby compulsion and consequent violation of the Constitution of the United States arose. In other words, that because there was conferred a benefit upon the corporation, which the legislature need not have bestowed, and which the company availed of, that its property was taken from it forcibly and without its consent. When the contention is thus reduced to its ultimate analysis, it comes to this -- that the property of the company was taken from it without its consent, because by the action of the legislature, for the benefit of the company, it was enabled to sell its plant to the city and thus escape a serious loss. Indeed, in reason, the theory upon which the bill is based could not be maintained without deciding that the company had an exclusive contract, and therefore

[ 193 U.S. Page 578]

     that there was a want of power in the legislature to authorize the city to erect its own plant; or, what is tantamount thereto, declaring that, although there was no exclusive right and therefore power in the legislature, to give the city the right to erect its own plant, that body must have abstained from the exercise of its lawful authority, unless it determined to exert it so as to destroy and ruin the company. The power being in the legislature, it was competent for that body to exert it for the benefit and in the interest of the water company, to enable that company, if it chose to sell its plant upon the terms stipulated, and thus avoid the loss which otherwise, the bill avers, would have been entailed. And these considerations take this case out of the reach of the authorities which are relied upon as establishing that one cannot enforce a contract benefit derived from or advantage gained over another, by coercing his will by means of threats, even of the doing of a lawful act. The advantage resulting from the power conferred upon the company to sell enured to its benefit, since it saved it from a ruin which otherwise would have been occasioned. No compulsion in any legal sense can be said to have been exerted on the company by the option given it, because the exercise by the company of the option, upon its own theory of the case, saved its property from destruction. To indulge in the assumption that the action of the company was not voluntary would require the assumption that the company would have willingly suffered a most grievous wrong when, by accepting as it did the benefits of the act, such consequences were averted. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in passing upon the award made by the commissioners, aptly said (168 Massachusetts, 554):

"It must be remembered that the transaction before us springs out of a voluntary offer by the petitioner to sell upon the statutory terms, and therefore there is no reason to try to bend those terms in its favor. Of course, an offer by a water company made under the threat of municipal ...


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