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PALMER ET AL. v. MASSACHUSETTS

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: November 6, 1939.

PALMER ET AL., TRUSTEES
v.
MASSACHUSETTS

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.

Hughes, McReynolds, Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas; Butler took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Frankfurter

[ 308 U.S. Page 81]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

October 23, 1935, opened another chapter in the long history of the vicissitudes of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company.*fn1 By filing a petition for reorganization under § 77 of the Bankruptcy Act (47 Stat. 1474, as amended by 49 Stat. 911 and 49 Stat. 1969,

[ 308 U.S. Page 8211]

     U. S. C. § 205), the New Haven invoked the shelter of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. There it has since remained. An episode in this new chapter, already four years old, is presented by this case. We brought it here, 306 U.S. 627, because it raises important questions under the railroad bankruptcy law, particularly where it intersects the regulatory systems of the states. The District Court assumed power to supplant the relevant authority of the state -- an authority which, apart from proceedings under § 77, has not been conferred by Congress either upon the federal courts or the Interstate Commerce Commission. The Circuit Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, reversed the District Court, Converse v. Massachusetts, 101 F.2d 48.

A summary of the facts will lay bare the legal issues. On December 28, 1937, the bankruptcy Trustees of the New Haven, acting under the requirements of Massachusetts law,*fn2 applied to that Commonwealth's Department of Public Utilities for leave to abandon eighty-eight passenger stations.*fn3 Twenty-one hearings were held by

[ 308 U.S. Page 83]

     the Department on the questions raised by this application. During the pendency of these hearings and before the Department had taken any action, the present litigation was initiated in the New Haven bankruptcy proceedings by creditors of the debtor for an order directing the Trustees to abandon these local services. The Trustees joined in the prayer, while the Commonwealth denied the jurisdiction of the District Court and asked that the proceedings before the Department be allowed to reach fruition. The District Judge ruled that § 77 gave him the responsibility of disposing of the petition on its merits and, having taken evidence, gave the very relief for which the Trustees had applied to the Department and which was still in process of orderly consideration.

Plainly enough the District Court had no power to deal with a matter in the keeping of state authorities unless Congress gave it. And so we have one of those problems in the reading of a statute wherein meaning is sought to be derived not from specific language but by fashioning a mosaic of significance out of the innuendoes of disjointed bits of a statute. At best this is subtle business, calling for great wariness lest what professes to be mere rendering becomes creation and attempted interpretation of legislation becomes legislation itself. Especially is wariness enjoined when the problem of construction

[ 308 U.S. Page 84]

     implicates one of the recurring phases of our federalism and involves striking a balance between national and state authority in one of the most sensitive areas of government.

To be sure, in recent years Congress has from time to time exercised authority over purely intrastate activities of an interstate carrier when, in the judgment of Congress, an interstate carrier constituted, as a matter of economic fact, a single organism and could not effectively be regulated as to some of its interstate phases without drawing local business within the regulated sphere.*fn4 But such absorption of state authority is a delicate exercise of legislative policy in achieving a wise accommodation between the needs of central control and the lively maintenance of local institutions.*fn5 Therefore, in construing legislation this court has disfavored inroads by implication on state authority and resolutely confined restrictions upon the traditional power of states to regulate their local transportation to the plain mandate of Congress. Minnesota Rate Cases, 230 U.S. 352; cf. Kelly v. Washington ex rel. Foss Co., 302 U.S. 1.

The dependence of local communities on local railroad services has for decades placed control over their curtailment within the regulatory authorities of the states.*fn6

[ 308 U.S. Page 85]

     Even when the Transportation Act in 1920 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission power to permit abandonment of local lines when the over-riding interests of interstate commerce required it, Colorado v. United States, 271 U.S. 153,*fn7 this was not deemed to confer upon the Commission jurisdiction over curtailments of service and partial discontinuances. Public Convenience Application of Kansas City Southern Ry., 94 I. C. C. 691; see Proposed Abandonment, Morris & Essex Co., 175 I. C. C. 49. If this old and familiar power of the states was withdrawn when Congress gave district courts bankruptcy powers over railroads, we ought to find language fitting for so drastic a change.

We are asked to find it in § 77 (a) granting to the bankruptcy court "exclusive jurisdiction of the debtor and its property wherever located,"*fn8 and in § 77 (c) (2) permitting the trustees, subject to the court's control, "to operate the business of the debtor."*fn9 In order to expedite the reorganization of insolvent railroads, such broad and general provisions doubtless suffice to confer

[ 308 U.S. Page 86]

     upon the district courts power appropriate for adjusting property rights in the railroad debtor's estate and, as to such rights, beyond that in ordinary bankruptcy proceedings. Cf. Continental Bank v. Chicago, R. I. & P. Ry. Co., 294 U.S. 648. But the District Court claimed power over the carrier's relation to the state. It has become the settled social policy both of the states and the nation to entrust the type of public interest here in question to expert administrative agencies because of "the notion," as Judge Learned Hand pointed out below, "that a judge is not qualified for such duties."*fn10

Not only is there no specific grant of the power which the District Court exercised, but the historic background of § 77, the considerations governing Congress in its enactment, and the scheme of the legislation as disclosed by its specific provisions reject the claim. Until the amendment of March 3, 1933, railroads were outside the Bankruptcy Act.*fn11 But the long history of federal railroad receiverships, with the conflicts they frequently engendered between the federal courts and the public, left an enduring conviction that a railroad was not like an ordinary insolvent estate.*fn12 Also an insolvent railroad, it was realized, required the oversight of agencies specially charged with the public interest represented by the transportation system. Indeed, when, in the depth of

[ 308 U.S. Page 87]

     the depression, legislation was deemed urgent to meet the grave crisis confronting the railroads, there was a strong sentiment in Congress to withdraw from the courts control over insolvent railroads and lodge it with the Interstate Commerce Commission.*fn13 Congress stopped short of this remedy. But the whole scheme of § 77 leaves no doubt that Congress did not mean to grant to the district courts the same scope as to bankrupt roads that they may have in dealing with other bankrupt estates.

The judicial process in bankruptcy proceedings under § 77 is, as it were, brigaded with the administrative process of the Commission. From the requirement of ratification by the Commission of the trustees appointed by the court to the Commission's approval of the court's plan of reorganization the authority of the court is intertwined with that of the Commission.*fn14 Thus, in § 77 (c) and

[ 308 U.S. Page 88]

     § 77 (o) the power of the district courts to permit abandonments is specifically conditioned on authorization of such abandonments by the Commission. In view of the judicial history of railroad receiverships and the extent to which § 77 made judicial action dependent on approval by the Interstate Commerce Commission, it would violate the traditional respect of Congress for local interests and for the administrative process to imply power in a single judge to disregard state law over local activities of a carrier the governance of which Congress has withheld even from the Interstate Commerce Commission, except as part of a complete plan of reorganization for an insolvent road.*fn15 About a fourth of the railroad mileage of

[ 308 U.S. Page 89]

     the country is now in bankruptcy.*fn16 The petitioners ask us to say that district judges in twenty-nine states have effective power, in view of the weight which often attaches to findings at nisi prius, to set aside the regulatory systems of these twenty-nine states with all the consequences implied for those communities. Congress gave no such power.

Arguments of convenience against denial of the existence of this power have been strongly pressed upon us. Continuance of state control over these local passenger services will, it is urged, impair the bankruptcy court's power to formulate a reorganization plan for the approval of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Such embarrassments, due either to the time required for exhaustion of the orderly state procedure or to the financial losses that may be involved in the continuance of local services until duly terminated by the state, may easily be exaggerated. It is not without significance that after four years no reorganization plan for the New Haven has yet been evolved. Perhaps it is no less true that amenability to state laws will serve as incentive to the formulation of reorganization plans which, on approval by the Commission, do supplant state authority. But, in any event, against possible inconveniences due to observance of state law we must balance the feelings of local communities, the dislocation of their habits and the over-riding of expert state agencies by a single judge sitting, as in this case, in another state, removed from familiarity with local problems, and not necessarily gifted with statesman-like imagination that transcends the wisdom of local attachments.

[ 308 U.S. Page 90]

     Other arguments, drawn from the legislative history of § 77 and from the general equity powers conferred by § 77 (a) and § (77) (c) (2),*fn17 were urged but we deem it unnecessary to say more.

The decree below is

Affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE BUTLER took no part in the consideration and decision of this cause.

Disposition

101 F.2d 48, affirmed.


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