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    WESTERN UNION TEL. CO. v. CITY OF RICHMOND, 224 U.S. 160 (1912)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    WESTERN UNION TEL. CO. v. CITY OF RICHMOND, 224 U.S. 160 (1912)

    224 U.S. 160

    WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY, Appt.,
    v.
    CITY OF RICHMOND.
    No. 195.

    Argued March 6 and 7, 1912.
    Decided April 1, 1912.

    [224 U.S. 160, 161]   Messrs. Rush Taggart and A. L. Holladay for appellant.

    [224 U.S. 160, 165]   Mr. H. R. Pollard for appellee.

    Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

    This is a bill in equity, filed on June 21, 1904, to restrain the enforcement of an ordinance of September 10, 1895, codified as chapter 88 of the ordinances of Richmond, and amended March 15, 1902, and December 18, 1903. The plaintiff alleges that the ordinance infringes its rights under the act of July 24, 1866, chap. 230, 14 Stat. at L. 221 (Rev. Stat. 5263 et seq., U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3579), and under article 1, 8 ( the commerce clause), and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The circuit court dismissed the bill (178 Fed. 310), and the plaintiff appealed. The act of Congress gives to telegraph companies that accept its provisions the right to construct, maintain, and operate lines over the post roads of the United States, such as the streets of Richmond concerned are admitted to be. Rev. Stat. 3964, act of March 1, [224 U.S. 160, 166]   1884, chap. 9, 23 Stat. at L. 3, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 2707. Some of the objections to the ordinance are based upon this statute and some are not; we take them as they come.

    By 1 poles and wires are not to be put up 'until the city engineer shall have first determined the size, quality, character, number, location, condition, appearance, and manner of erection of' the same. By 4 the committee on streets may require permission to be given to others to place upon the poles light current wires which, in the Committee's opinion, will not unreasonably interfere with the owners' business; terms, if not agreed upon, to be submitted to arbitration. By 15 the chief of the fire department and the superintendent of fire alarm and police telegraph are to inspect poles and wires, and if a pole is unsafe, or the attachments or insulations, etc., are unsuitable or unsafe, are to require them to be altered or replaced and removed, with a fine for each day's failure to obey the order. By 26 violation of any provision, or failure to obey any requirement made under the ordinance by the city engineer or the just- named superintendent or chief, if not specially fined, is to be fined from ten to five hundred dollars a day, by the police justice. Finally, by 28, as amended in 1903, all overhead wires within a certain territory are to be removed, and within two months plans for conduits are to be submitted to the committee on streets and Shockoe creek, showing location, plan, size, construction, and material. These plans may be altered or amended by the committee, and when satisfactory to it are to be followed by the owner of the wires in a manner satisfactory to the city engineer. The pavements are to be replaced and kept in repair to his satisfaction and the city saved harmless from damages. The conduits are to provide for an increase of 30 per cent, not to be occupied by third parties without consent of the committee and compensation, but the wires of the city to be carried free, one duct being [224 U.S. 160, 167]   reserved for them. The location, size, shape, and subdivision of the conduits, the material and manner of construction, must be satisfactory to the city engineer, and the work of laying underground conduits is to be under the direction and to the satisfaction of the superintendent of fire alarm and police telegraph.

    All these provisions are objected to as subjecting the appellant to an arbitrary discretion,-in 1, that of the city engineer as to the poles; in 4, that of the committee on streets as to the use of the poles; in 15, that of the chief and superintendent mentioned as to not only the safety of the poles and wires, but the unsuitableness of the latter, or their attachments, insulation, or appliances; in 28, that of the committee on streets as to underground plans, that of the superintendent of fire alarm as to laying the conduits, and that of the city engineer as to the replacement of pavement in the streets, and the carrying out of the plans in all the details just stated. It is argued also that by 26 the appellant is subjected to further requirements without limit from the officers named, but this argument may be dismissed, the requirements referred to being only those 'made under this chapter;' that is, specifically authorized in the other sections to which we have referred. Again, the objections are not to be fortified by those decisions that turn on the power to delegate legislative functions. United States v. Grimaud, 220 U.S. 506 , 55 L. ed. 563, 31 Sup. Ct. Rep. 480. We have been shown no ground for supposing that the ordinance exceeded the power of the legislature to authorize, or of the city to enact, unless it interferes with some special paramount right of the appellant. The bill is brought wholly on the ground that the appellant has such rights that no state legislation can touch. Unless it has them, there is nothing in the Constitution of the United States to prevent the grant of these discretionary powers to the committees and officers named. Davis v. Massachusetts, 167 U.S. 43 , 42 L. ed. 71, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 731; Gundling [224 U.S. 160, 168]   v. Chicago, 177 U.S. 183 , 44 L. ed. 725, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 633, Fischer v. St. Louis, 194 U.S. 361, 371 , 48 S. L. ed. 1018, 1023, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 673; Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co. 211 U.S. 210, 225 , 53 S. L. ed. 150, 158, 29 Sup, Ct. Rep. 67.

    The appellant says that it has the right to occupy the streets of Richmond under the act of Congress, and therefore, although subject to reasonable regulation, it cannot be subjected to a discretion guided by no rules. Neither branch of this proposition, as applied to this case, commands our assent. To begin with the end, while it is true that rules are not laid down in terms, they are implied so far as there need to be any. If the committee and officers do their duty, there is no room in the questions left to them for arbitrary whim. They are to exercise their judgment on the suitableness, safety, etc., of the places, poles, and wires by the criteria that would be applied by all persons skilled in such affairs who should seek to reconcile the welfare of the public and the instalment of the plant. The objection that other motives may come in is merely that which may be made to all authority,-that it may be dishonest,- an objection that would make government impossible if it prevailed. It is said that the ordinance should confine the committee and officers to finding whether required and specified facts exist. But not only is it impossible to set down beforehand every particular fact that may have to be taken into account, but, in case of dishonesty, it would do no good. We are of opinion that the ordinance is not unreasonable as a grant of arbitrary power. Regulations very like these were upheld, so far as they presented Federal questions, against a company assumed to have a right to use the streets, in Missouri ex rel. Laclede Gaslight Co. v. Murphy, 170 U.S. 78, 99 , 42 S. L. ed. 955, 964, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 505. See also Wilson v. Eureka City, 173 U.S. 32 , 43 L. ed 603, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 317.

    In view of what we have said and the appellant's admission that it is subject to reasonable regulation, it would be unnecessary to consider its rights under the act of [224 U.S. 160, 169]   Congress but for some further complaint that the appellant's property is taken without due process of law. That complaint opens the question what property the appellant has. The act of Congress, of course, conveyed no title, and did not attempt to found one by delegating the power to take by eminent domain. Western U. Teleg. Co. v. Pennsylvania R. Co. 195 U.S. 540, 574 , 49 S. L. ed. 312, 324, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 133, 1 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 517. It made the erection of telegraph lines free to all submitting to its conditions, as against an attempt by a state to exclude them because they were foreign corporations, or because of its wish to erect a monopoly of its own. Pensacola Teleg. Co. v. Western U. Teleg. Co. 96 U.S. 1 , 24 L. ed. 708. It has been held to prevent a state from stopping the operation of lines within the act by injunction for failure to pay taxes. Western U. Teleg. Co. v. Atty. Gen. 125 U.S. 530 , 31 L. ed. 790, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 961. But except in this negative sense, the statute is only permissive, not a source of positive rights. The inability of the state to prohibit the appellant from getting a foothold within its territory, both because of the statute and of its carrying on of commerce among the states, gives the appellant no right to use the soil of the streets, even though post roads, as against private owners, or as against the city or state, where it owns the land. St. Louis v. Western U. Teleg. Co. 148 U.S. 92, 101 , 37 S. L. ed. 380, 384, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 485, s. c. 149 U.S. 465 , 37 L. ed. 810, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 990; Richmond v. Southern Bell Teleph. & Teleg. Co. 174 U.S. 761 . 771, 43 L. ed. 1162, 1166, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 778; Atlantic & P. Teleg. Co. v. Philadelphia, 190 U.S. 160, 163 , 47 S. L. ed. 995, 999, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 817; Hudson County Water Co. v. McCarter, 209 U.S. 349, 357 , 52 S. L. ed. 828, 832, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 529, 14 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 560.

    The only ground of title disclosed by the appellant is the act of 1866, coupled, perhaps, with the fact that its lines are established. The rights of the city to the streets are left a little vague, but the bill assumes that they are such as to authorize the charge of a reasonable rental, on the principle of St. Louis v. Western U. Teleg Co. 148 U.S. 92 , 37 L. ed. 380, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 485. Any license that the city may have [224 U.S. 160, 170]   granted as owner or representative of the owner of the public easement or otherwise may be assumed to have been revoked, and so far as the city's title is infringed by the appellant, nothing appears to limit the city's right to insist upon it, as fully as a private owner might. Leaving the question of title on one side, except so far as to note that the appellant does not show one, and that the city has power to admit it to the highways, the other regulations complained of do not violate the appellant's constitutional rights.

    When the appellants, without the right to exercise the power of eminent domain, desires to occupy land belonging to others, prima facie it must submit to their terms. We assume, as we have said, that the city has some interest in the streets that is affected by the presence or by the establishment of conduits or poles. If it demands, as a condition of its assent, as it does by 6, that positions shall be reserved upon the poles for the city, and by 28, that provision shall be made for 30 per cent increase, and that the city's wires shall be carried free of charge, one duct being reserved for them, it is within its rights. Even assuming, as seems to be implied by some of the language in St. Louis v. Western U. Teleg. Co. 148 U.S. 92, 104 , 105 S., 37 L. ed. 380, 385, 386, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 485; Western U. Teleg. Co. v. Atty. Gen. 125 U.S. 530 , 31 L. ed. 790, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 961, that, in consequence of the act of Congress, the city is restricted to reasonable demands, the foregoing requirements do not seem to us unreasonable, in view of the position of the parties. The city must use these poles and conduits or others, and it is not unfair that it should avoid the expense and additional burden of a seperate system, and insist on getting the help it needs from the system already there. See Postal Teleg. Cable Co. v. Chicopee, 207 Mass. 341, 32 L.R.A.(N.S.) 997, 93 N. E. 927. It is no sufficient objection that, from the point of view of rental, the burden on certain poles may vary in a proportion different from the value [224 U.S. 160, 171]   of those poles. The notion of rental cannot be used thus to restrict the conditions that may be imposed. The conditions are reasonable with reference to the occupation of the streets, considered as a whole, and are not made otherwise by the fact that there is also a specific money charge for each pole or underground mile of wire.

    The requirement that space be left in the conduits for wires of third parties, to be used upon permission by the city and compensation ( 4, 28 ), is merely another incident of the necessity for insisting upon a single system. It would seem not to be unreasonable for legislation, apart from any question of property rights, to require that a single conduit should contain all the wires under a street. When the legislature also is fixing the terms on which it will yield a property right, the validity of the condition becomes doubly clear. So, a provision in 28 for moving or altering conduits at the appellant's expense, upon notice from the city that the change is necessary for the construction or repair of gas, sewer, or water mains. These items seem to us as easily justified as the order to put the wires underground, the legality of which the appellant fully admits.

    The money charges of $2 per pole and the same sum per mile of underground wire are found fault with. 10, 32. Many of the cases relied upon by the appellant are cases turning on the limitations to the powers of the municipality. But, as we have said, this bill is brought on the theory that any such legislation by the state would be bad under the Constitution and act of Congress,-not upon the suggestion that the city of Richmond is acting ultra vires. If the city could be authorized to do what it has done, we must assume that it is acting within its powers. Taking up the question, so limited, we agree with the court below that after the appellant, as is found, has paid the charges without complaint, for many years, it would require something more [224 U.S. 160, 172]   than a mere protest now to induce us to find it unreasonable. The sum is not so great as has been charged and sustained heretofore. St. Louis v. Western U. Teleg. Co. 148 U.S. 92, 104 , 37 S. L. ed. 380, 385, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 485, s. c. 149 U.S. 465 , 37 L. ed. 810, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 990; Postal Teleg. Cable Co. v. Baltimore, 156 U.S. 210 , 39 L. ed. 399, 15 Sup. Ct. Rep. 356; Memphis v. Postal Teleg. & Cable Co. 91 C. C. A. 135, 164 Fed. 600, 16 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 342.

    There is the frequently recurring contention that the ordinance is void because of the great penalties that may be incurred in the time necessary to test its legality. Especially mentioned is 27, as amended in 1902, which imposes a fine of from $100 to $500 for each pole remaining after the time set for their removal, and of from $100 to $500 for every week thereafter. It does not look as if the penalties in this ordinance were established with a view to prevent the appellant from resorting to the Federal courts, nor do we apprehend that an attempt will be made to enforce them in respect to the past. But the penalties are separable from the rest of the ordinance, and if an oppressive application of them should be attempted, it will be time enough then for the appellant to file its bill. United States ex rel. Atty. Gen. v. Delaware & H. Co. 213 U.S. 366, 417 , 53 S. L. ed. 836, 852, 29 Sup. Ct. Rep. 527; Grenada Lumber Co. v. Mississippi, 217 U.S. 433, 443 , 54 S. L. ed. 826, 831, 30 Sup. Ct. Rep. 535.

    One more objection to the ordinance is found in 31, which limits the privilege as to the conduits to fifteen years, and provides that after that time the city may put such restrictions, conditions and charges as it sees fit, or may order the conduits removed. It seems to be thought that this is an attempt to make the appellant contract itself out of the benefit of the act of Congress. What we have said will show some reason for not so regarding the ordinance; and as an amendment, 34, adopted since the bill was filed, provides that none of the obligations, etc., of the chapter, shall interfere with rights under the act of 1866, the appellant's position would be no worse by reason of its complying with what it cannot help. We think it [224 U.S. 160, 173]   unnecessary to discuss the bill in greater detail to show that it cannot be maintained.

    Decree dismissing bill affirmed.

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