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United States Postal Service v. Brennan

decided: April 13, 1978.


Appeal from a summary judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, Hon. Harold P. Burke, Judge, upholding the constitutionality of the federal postal monopoly.

Friendly, Mulligan and Meskill, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mulligan

MULLIGAN, Circuit Judge:

The facts underlying this litigation are undisputed. Patricia H. Brennan and J. Paul Brennan, doing business under the name of P. H. Brennan Hand Delivery Service (the Brennans), have conducted since March, 1976 in downtown Rochester, New York, a service delivering for compensation letters and small to medium size parcels. They guarantee same day delivery in Rochester for all materials picked up from customers before twelve o'clock noon at a rate which is less than that charged by the United States Postal Service (USPS). On February 23, 1977 USPS brought a civil action in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York seeking permanent injunctive relief prohibiting the Brennans from continued violations of the Private Express Statutes which proscribe the private carriage and delivery of "letters."*fn1 On March 22, 1977 the Brennans filed an answer which in substance admitted the material facts alleged in the complaint but as a defense urged that the Private Express Statutes were unconstitutional. Cross motions for summary judgment were filed and on December 27, 1977, United States District Judge, Hon. Harold P. Burke, found that the defendants' contentions were without merit. He denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment and granted the government's motion for summary judgment. The Brennans appealed. On January 10, 1978 this court granted a stay of the district court's order and judgment until the argument of this appeal. At that argument on February 22, 1978 this court extended the stay until the determination of the appeal. The judgment of the district court is hereby affirmed and the stay in this matter is vacated.


Under the "Private Express Statutes", Congress has granted the United States a monopoly on the conveyance of "letters or packets" and has precluded competition by private express. National Ass'n of Letter Carriers v. Independent Postal System of America, 470 F.2d 265, 267 (10th Cir. 1972). Appellants' primary position is that the Constitution did not grant exclusive power to Congress to operate a postal system and that the Private Express Statutes are not "necessary and proper" to execute the constitutional power to establish post offices and post roads.

The Constitution does not expressly give Congress "the sole and exclusive right and power" to establish and regulate the carriage of mail as did the Articles of Confederation.*fn2 However, the postal power, like all other enumerated powers of Congress, "is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution." Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 196, 6 L. Ed. 23 (1824) (Marshall, C.J.) (commence clause). Moreover, the Constitution grants Congress the power to enact all laws it deems necessary and proper to execute its power to establish post offices.*fn3 The congressional choice, as expressed in the Private Express Statutes, was to retain in the United States an exclusive and monopolistic authority over the delivery of letters. The question is whether that determination was "necessary and proper."

The scope of the necessary and proper clause was indelibly sketched in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 4 L. Ed. 579 (1819) where Chief Justice Marshall gave a broad interpretation to that clause in upholding congressional action under the commerce clause:

We admit, as all must admit, that the powers of the government are limited, and that its limits are not to be transcended. But we think the sound construction of the constitution must allow to the national legislature that discretion, with respect to the means by which the powers it confers are to be carried into execution, which will enable that body to perform the high duties assigned to it, in the manner most beneficial to the people. Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.

4 Wheat. at 421 (footnote omitted).*fn4

There is nothing novel or unprecedented in the governmental monopoly.*fn5 While we need not demonstrate that today's mail service is the inevitable outgrowth of 4,000 years of postal history commencing in Egypt and Assyria, see C. Scheele, Neither Snow, Nor Rain . . . . The Story of the United States Mails 2-10 (1970), it has been noted that private industry could not have attempted to supply the postal requirements of a frontier nation. See W. Rich, The History of the United States Post Office to the Year 1829 at 91-110 (1924). Congress certainly could have determined that something less than a federal monopoly would allow the continuance of an effective postal system. However, the wisdom of the choice is not the question for the court; we may only pass on Congress' power to make it.*fn6

The constitutionality of the postal monopoly has been challenged rarely and never successfully.*fn7 Almost a century ago Boyd's City Dispatch employed some 50 carriers who made daily collections and deliveries of letters in the City of New York in competition with the United States Post Office. The proprietor of the private service sought a preliminary injunction to enjoin the Postmaster General from seizing the mail Boyd's City Dispatch was delivering. No attack was made on the constitutionality of the private express statute, U.S.Rev.Stat. § 3982. Rather, plaintiff sought to distinguish her business from those covered by the statute. The court in Blackham v. Gresham, 16 Fed. 609, 612 (C.C.S.D.N.Y. 1883), in an opinion denying the injunction, stated:

As pointed out by the attorney general of the United States in 1858, (9 Op. 161) "the business of carrying letters and other mail matter belongs exclusively to the government; and in cities and the large towns letter carriers are as much part of the system as the transportation of the mails from one office to another." If private agencies can be established, the income of the government may be so reduced that economy might demand a discontinuance of the system; and thus the business which it is the right and duty of the government to conduct for the interest of all, and on such terms that all may avail themselves of it with advantage, may be handed over to individuals or corporations who will conduct it with the sole view of making money, and who may find it for their profit to exclude localities or classes from the benefit of the service. (Emphasis supplied.)

The most recent opinion in point is United States v. Black, 569 F.2d 1111 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 944,, 98 S. Ct. 1525, 55 L. Ed. 2d 541, 46 U.S.L.W. 3601 (1978). In Black the defendants operated a private express conveying letters between the cities of Pittsburgh and Frontenac in the State of Kansas. The defendants admitted that they violated 18 U.S.C. § 1696 but in defense claimed that the statute was unconstitutional. The court held that the postal monopoly was constitutional because it ...

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