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DOBBINS v. LOS ANGELES

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


November 14, 1904

DOBBINS
v.
LOS ANGELES

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA

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

Author: Day

[ 195 U.S. Page 234]

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

As this case was decided upon demurrer to the complaint, the allegations thereof must be taken as true. The question presented involves the right of the plaintiff in error to invoke the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment against alleged infraction of her rights by the action of the city council in passing and enforcing the ordinances which prevent the carrying on of the business of making and selling gas to the people of the city.

Before entering upon a consideration of the case it is essential to examine briefly the extent to which constitutional and legislative control have been exercised by authority of the State of California in reference to the erection and maintenance of gasworks in cities. The constitution of the State, section 19, article XI, provides that "In any city where there are no public works owned and controlled by the municipality for supplying the same with water or artificial light, any individual, or any company duly incorporated for such purpose, under and by authority of the laws of this State, shall, under the direction of the superintendent of streets, or other officer in control thereof, and under such general regulations as the municipality may prescribe, for damages and indemnity for damages, have the privilege of using the public streets and thoroughfares thereof, and of laying down pipes and conduits therein, and connections therewith, so far as may be necessary for introducing into and supplying such city and its inhabitants either with gaslight, or other illuminating light, or with fresh water for domestic and all other purposes, upon the condition that the municipal government shall have the right to regulate the charges thereof." By the act of the state legislature of April 4, 1870, Stats. of 1869-1870, 815, it was provided that cities may control the location and construction of works so that they may be erected in suitable localities to give the least discomfiture or annoyance to the public. By the constitution

[ 195 U.S. Page 235]

     of the State of California it is provided, art. XII, sec. 11, that any county, city, town or township may make and enforce within its limits all such local, police, sanitary or other regulations as are not in conflict with the general laws. In these provisions may be found a grant of power to the city of Los Angeles to control the location and erection of gasworks within the city limits. In the grant of such control the fact is recognized that while the erection and maintenance of such works is a lawful business pursuit and one essential to the welfare and comfort of the community, its prosecution requires the use of materials of such a character, and such construction and maintenance of the works as not to be dangerous or offensive when carried on within thickly populated parts of the city, and such rights are consequently justly subject to regulation in such manner as to protect the public health and safety. The Supreme Court of California, as may be gathered from its opinion in this case, based its decision upon the proposition that as the exercise of the right to control the location and construction of gasworks is within the power conferred by the legislature upon the city, the act of the municipality in question cannot be reviewed, because so to do would be a substitution of the judgment of the court for that of the council upon a matter left within the exclusive control of the legislative body. To support this conclusion a citation is made from the opinion of this court in the case of Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, to the effect that the legislature is the exclusive judge of the propriety of police regulation when the matter is within the scope of its power. The observations of Mr. Chief Justice Waite in that connection had reference to the facts of the particular case and were certainly not intended to declare the right of either the legislature or a city council to arbitrarily deprive the citizen of rights protected by the Constitution under the guise of exercising the police powers reserved to the States. It may be admitted that every intendment is to be made in favor of the lawfulness of the exercise of municipal power, making regulations to promote the public health and

[ 195 U.S. Page 236]

     safety, and that it is not the province of courts, except in clear cases, to interfere with the exercise of the power reposed by law in municipal corporations for the protection of local rights and the health and welfare of the people in the community. But notwithstanding this general rule of the law, it is now thoroughly well settled by decisions of this court that municipal by-laws and ordinances, and even legislative enactments undertaking to regulate useful business enterprises, are subject to investigation in the courts with a view to determining whether the law or ordinance is a lawful exercise of the police power, or whether under the guise of enforcing police regulations there has been an unwarranted and arbitrary interference with the constitutional rights to carry on a lawful business, to make contracts, or to use and enjoy property. In Lawton v. Steele, 152 U.S. 133, 137, Mr. Justice Brown, speaking for the court, said upon this subject:

"To justify the State in thus interposing its authority in behalf of the public, it must appear, first, that the interests of the public generally, as distinguished from those of a particular class, require such interference; and, second, that the means are reasonably necessary for the accomplishment of the purpose, and not unduly oppressive upon individuals. The legislature may not, under the guise of protecting the public interests, arbitrarily interfere with private business or impose unusual and unnecessary restrictions upon lawful occupations. In other words, its determination as to what is a proper exercise of its police powers is not final or conclusive, but is subject to the supervision of the courts.'

And, again, in Holden v. Hardy, 169 U.S. 366, 398, the same justice, again speaking for the court, said:

"The question in each case is whether the legislature has adopted the statute in exercise of a reasonable discretion, or whether its action be a mere excuse for an unjust discrimination, or the oppression or spoliation of a particular class."

And in Connolly v. Union Sewer Pipe Co., 184 U.S. 540, 558, Mr. Justice Harlan, delivering the opinion of the court, said:

[ 195 U.S. Page 237]

     "The question of constitutional law to which we have referred [the equal protection of the laws] cannot be disposed of by saying that the statute in question may be referred to what are called the police powers of the State, which, as often stated by this court, were not included in the grants of power to the General Government, and therefore reserved to the States when the Constitution was ordained. But as the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land, anything in the Constitution or statutes of the States to the contrary notwithstanding, a statute of a State, even when avowedly enacted in the exercise of its police powers, must yield to that law. No right granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States can be impaired or destroyed by a state enactment, whatever may be the source from which the power to pass such enactment may have been derived. 'The nullity of any act inconsistent with the Constitution is produced by the declaration that the Constitution is the supreme law.' The State has undoubtedly the power, by appropriate legislation, to protect the public morals, the public health and the public safety, but if, by their necessary operation, its regulations looking to either of those ends amount to a denial to persons within its jurisdiction of the equal protection of the laws, they must be deemed unconstitutional and void. Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 210; Sinnot v. Davenport, 22 How 227, 243; Missouri, Kansas & Texas Ry. v. Haber, 169 U.S. 613, 626."

This principle was recognized and applied in the Supreme Court of California in a case decided later than the one under consideration. In re Smith, decided May 31, 1904, 77 Pac. Rep. 180, in which it was held that a county ordinance making it a misdemeanor to maintain a gasworks within a sparsely settled district was unreasonable and void. In that case the court, after again quoting from Munn v. Illinois, to the effect that the courts will not interfere with laws which are within the scope of legislative power, well said:

"But, running current with this principle, and to be read with it, is one of equal importance, namely, that when the

[ 195 U.S. Page 238]

     police power is exerted to regulate a useful business or occupation, the legislature is not the exclusive judge as to what is a reasonable and just restraint upon the constitutional right of the citizen to pursue any trade, business or vocation, which in itself is recognized as innocent and useful to the community. It is always a judicial question if any particular regulation of such right is a valid exercise of police power, though the power of the courts to declare such regulation invalid will be exercised with the utmost caution, and only where it is clear that the ordinance or law declared void passes the limits of the police powers and infringes upon rights guaranteed by the constitution."

Applying the principles settled by these decisions to the allegations of the bill, admitted by the demurrer, we think a case is made which called for the protection of the courts against arbitrary interference with the rights of the plaintiff in error. Complying with the terms of the ordinance which was in force when the plaintiff in error was about to begin the erection of the gasworks in controversy, a tract of land was purchased within the district wherein the erection of such works was permitted, a contract was entered into for the construction of the works, a considerable sum of money was expended. It may be admitted as being a correct statement of the law as held by the California Supreme Court that, notwithstanding the grant of the permit, and even after the erection of the works, the city might still, for the protection of the public health and safety, prohibit the further maintenance and continuance of such works, and the prosecution of the business, originally harmless, may become, by reason of the manner of its prosecution or a changed condition of the community, a menace to the public health and safety. In other words, the right to exercise the police power is a continuing one, and a business lawful to-day may in the future, because of the changed situation, the growth of population or other causes, become a menace to the public health and welfare, and be required to yield to the public good. Fertilizing Co. v. Hyde

[ 195 U.S. Page 239]

     nothing in the situation which rendered it necessary, in order to protect the city from a noisome and unhealthy business, to decrease the area within which gasworks could lawfully be erected.

It is urged that, where the exercise of legislative or municipal power is clearly within constitutional limits, the courts will not inquire into the motives which may have actuated the legislative body in passing the law or ordinance in question. Whether, when it appears that the facts would authorize the exercise of the power, the courts will restrain its exercise because of alleged wrongful motives inducing the passage of an ordinance is not a question necessary to be determined in this case, but where the facts as to the situation and conditions are such as to establish the exercise of the police power in such manner as to oppress or discriminate against a class or an individual the courts may consider and give weight to such purpose in considering the validity of the ordinance. This court, in the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, held that although an ordinance might be lawful upon its face and apparently fair in its terms, yet if it was enforced in such a manner as to work a discrimination against a part of the community for no lawful reason, such exercise of power would be invalidated by the courts.

In some of the States, perhaps in most, the right to build and maintain gasworks is derived from the State, but subject to municipal control as to the use of the streets and the prices to be charge to consumers. In Ohio this price is regulated for stated periods. Could it be successfully maintained that after the erection of the works and the fixing of prices for a term of ten years, at the expiration thereof and exercising the right to fix prices for a new term, the council could arbitrarily, and with a view of compelling the sale of the works to the municipality or a rival company, fix the rate at a price below the cost of gas to the producer and at such a rate as to be ruinous to the business? In State ex rel. The Attorney General v. The Cincinnati Gas Light & Coke Co., 18 Ohio St. 262, it was

[ 195 U.S. Page 241]

     held to be the legislative intention, in empowering city councils to regulate the price of gas, to limit such companies to fair and reasonable prices, and if in the colorable exercise of this power a majority of the members of the council, for a fraudulent purpose, combine to pass an ordinance fixing the price of gas at a rate at which they well know it cannot be manufactured and sold without loss, such an ordinance would impose no obligation on the company. This case was cited with apparent approval by Mr. Justice Matthews in delivering the opinion of this court in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, supra, and see Dillon Mun. Corp. 4th ed. ยง 311.

In this case we think the allegations of the bill disclose such character of territory, such sudden and unexplained change of its limits after the plaintiff in error had purchased the property and gone forward with the erection of the works, as to bring it within that class of cases wherein the court may restrain the arbitrary and discriminatory exercise of the police power which amounts to a taking of property without due process of law and an impairment of property rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

It is also urged by the defendants in error that a court of equity will not enjoin prosecution of a criminal case; but, as we have seen, the plaintiff in error in this case had acquired property rights which by the enforcement of the ordinances in question would be destroyed and rendered worthless. If the allegations of the bill be taken as true, she had the right to proceed with the prosecution of the work without interference by the city authorities in the form of arrest and prosecution of those in her employ.

It is well settled that where property rights will be destroyed unlawful interference by criminal proceedings under a void law or ordinance may be reached and controlled by a decree of a court of equity. Davis & Farnum Mfg. Co. v. Los Angeles, 189 U.S. 207, 218, and cases therein cited.

Upon the whole case, we are of opinion that the demurrer

[ 195 U.S. Page 242]

     should have been overruled and the city of Los Angeles put upon its answer.

For the reasons herein stated, the judgment of the Supreme Court of California is reversed and the cause remanded to that court for further proceedings not in conflict with this opinion.

19041114

© 1998 VersusLaw Inc.



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