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U.S. Supreme Court


278 U.S. 245

No. 94.

Argued Dec. 5 and 6, 1928.
Decided Jan. 2, 1929.

[278 U.S. 245, 246]   Messrs. Solon J. Carter and Frederick E. Matson, both of Indianapolis, Ind., for George Van Camp & Sons Co.

[278 U.S. 245, 247]   Messrs. Wm. H. Thompson, of Indianapolis, Ind., and Lemuel A. Welles, of New York City, for American Can Co.

Mr. Henry H. Hornbrook, of Indianapolis, Ind., for Van Camp Packing Co., Inc.

[278 U.S. 245, 249]  

Mr. Justice SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was brought in the federal District Court for the District of Indiana to enjoin violations of section 2 of the Clayton Act. 38 Stat. 730, c. 323; U. S. Code, tit. 15, 13 (15 USCA 13). From a decree dismissing the bill for want of equity, an appeal was taken to the court below. Under section 239 of the Judicial Code as amended (U. S. Code, tit. 28, 346), that court has certified the following questions concerning which instructions are desired for the proper disposition of the cause:

The relevant facts upon which the questions are based are set forth as follows:

Section 2, copied in the margin,1 provides that it shall be unlawful for any person engaged in commerce, in the course of such commerce, to discriminate in price between different purchasers ... where the effect of such discrimination may be to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly in any line of commerce. As applied to the present case, the word 'commerce' as there used means interstate commerce. Clayton Act, 1 (15 USCA 12).

The pertinent facts, shortly stated, are: That George Van Camp & Sons Company, the complainant, and the Van Camp Packing Company are both engaged in the business of packing and selling food products in tin cans in interstate commerce. The American Can Company manufactures tin cans used in the food-packing industry and sells such cans to the other two companies and leases to them machines for sealing the cans. It sells to the packing company at a discount of 20 per cent. below the announced standard prices at which it sells cans of the same kind to the complainant; it charges complainant a [278 U.S. 245, 253]   fixed rental for the sealing machines, but furnishes them to the packing company free of charge; and it discriminates in other respects. The effect of the discrimination is to substantially lessen competition, and its tendency is to create a monopoly, in the line of interstate commerce in which complainant and the packing company are competitively engaged.

These facts bring the case within the terms of the statute, unless the words 'in any line of commerce' are to be given a narrower meaning than a literal reading of them conveys. The phrase is comprehensive and means that if the forbidden effect or tendency is produced in one out of all the various lines of commerce, the words 'in any line of commerce' literally are satisfied. The contention is that the words must be confined to the particular line of commerce in which the discriminator is engaged, and that they do not include a different line of commerce in which purchasers from the discriminator are engaged in competition with one another. In support of this contention, we are asked to consider reports of congressional committees and other familiar aids to statutory construction. But the general rule that 'the province of construction lies wholly within the domain of ambiguity,' Hamilton v. Rathbone, 175 U.S. 414, 419 , 421 S., 20 S. Ct. 155, 158 (44 L. Ed. 219), is too firmly established by the numerous decisions of this court either to require or permit us to do so. The words being clear, they are decisive. There is nothing to construe. To search elsewhere for a meaning either beyond or short of that which they disclose is to invite the danger, in the one case, of converting what was meant to be open and precise, into a concealed trap for the unsuspecting, or, in the other, of relieving from the grasp of the statute some whom the Legislature definitely meant to include. Decisions of this court, where the letter of the statute was not deemed controlling and the legislative intent was determined by a consideration of circumstances [278 U.S. 245, 254]   apart from the plain language used, are of rare occurrence and exceptional character, and deal with provisions which, literally applied, offend the moral sense, involve injustice, oppression or absurdity, United States v. Goldenberg, 168 U.S. 95, 103 , 18 S. Ct. 3; or lead to an unreasonable resuit, plainly at variance with the policy of the statute as a whole, Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178, 194 , 43 S. Ct. 65. Nothing of this kind is to be found in the present case. The fundamental policy of the legislation is that, in respect of persons engaged in the same line of interstate commerce, competition is desirable and that whatever substantially lessens it or tends to create a monopoly in such line of commerce is an evil. Offense against this policy, by a discrimination in prices exacted by the seller from different purchasers of similar goods, is no less clear when it produces the evil in respect of the line of commerce in which they are engaged than when it produces the evil in respect of the line of commerce in which the seller is engaged. In either case, a restraint is put upon 'the freedom of competition in the channels of interstate trade which it has been the purpose of all the anti- trust acts to maintain.' Federal Trade Comm v. Beech-Nut Co., 257 U.S. 441, 454 , 42 S. Ct. 150, 155 (66 L. Ed. 307, 19 A. L. R. 882).

We have not failed carefully to consider Mennen Co. v. Federal Trade Commission (C. C. A.) 288 F. 774 (followed in National Biscuit Co. v. Federal Trade Commission (C. C. A.) 299 F. 733), cited as contrary to the conclusion we have reached. The decision in that case was based upon the premise that the statute was ambiguous and required the aid of committee reports, etc., to determine its meaning, a premise which we have rejected as unsound.

Both questions submitted are answered in the affirmative.

Question No. 1, Yes.

Question No. 2, Yes.


[ Footnote * ] For opinion conforming to answers to certified questions, see 30 F.( 2d) 1011.

[ Footnote 1 ] 'It shall be unlawful for any person engaged in commerce, in the course of such commerce, either directly or indirectly to discriminate in price between different purchasers of commodities, which commodities are sold for use, consumption, or resale within the United States or any territory thereof or the District of Columbia or any insular possession or other place under the jurisdiction of the United States, where the effect of such discrimination may be to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monoply in any line of commerce: Provided, that nothing herein contained shall prevent discrimination in price between purchasers of commodities on account of differences in the grade, quality, or quantity of the commodity sold, or that makes only due allowance for difference in the cost of selling or transportation, or discrimination in price in the same or different communities made in good faith to meet competition: And provided further, that nothing herein contained shall prevent persons engaged in selling goods, wares, or merchandise in commerce from selecting their own customers is bona fide transactions and not in restraint of trade.'

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