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NORFOLK AND WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY v. CONLEY

March 8, 1915

NORFOLK AND WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY
v.
CONLEY, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA



ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF KANAWHA COUNTY, STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA

White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Hughes, Van Devanter, Lamar, Pitney, McReynolds

Author: Hughes

[ 236 U.S. Page 607]

 MR. JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the court.

In 1907, the legislature of West Virginia passed an act fixing the maximum fare for passengers on railroads, as described in the statute, at two cents a mile. Acts, 1907, Ch. 41, p. 226. After the rate had been tested by operating under it for two years, the plaintiff in error brought this suit to restrain its enforcement as being in violation of the

[ 236 U.S. Page 608]

     constitution of the State, and also upon the ground that it was repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment by reason of (1) its provision for penalties, (2) its classification of railroads, and (3) its alleged confiscatory requirements, through the reduction of the revenue from the traffic to less than a reasonable compensation. The validity of the statute, as construed by the state court, with respect to penalties and classification was upheld in Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. v. Conley, 230 U.S. 513. In the case of Coal & Coke Ry. v. Conley, 67 W. Va. 129, while the statute was sustained against the other objections above mentioned, it was adjudged to be confiscatory in its operation with respect to the plaintiff in that case. In the present suit the Circuit Court of Kanawha County by its decree entered in March, 1913, held that the rate was not confiscatory in fact as to the plaintiff in error. No opinion appears in the record and there were no special findings. An application was made to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia for the allowance of an appeal to that court, and it was refused. This writ of error was then sued out.

1. The fundamental question presented is whether the validity of the passenger rate can be determined by its effect upon the passenger business of the company, separately considered. What has been said in the opinion in Northern Pacific Railway v. North Dakota, decided this day (ante, p. 585), makes an extended discussion of this question unnecessary. It was recognized that the State has a broad field for the exercise of its discretion in prescribing reasonable rates for common carriers within its jurisdiction; that it is not necessary that there should be uniform rates or the same percentage of profit on every sort of business; and that there is abundant room for reasonable classification and the adaptation of rates to various groups of services. It was further held that despite this range of permissible action, the State has no arbitrary power over rates; that the devotion of the property of

[ 236 U.S. Page 609]

     the carrier to public use is qualified by the condition of the carrier's undertaking that its services are to be performed for reasonable reward; and that the State may not select a commodity, or class of traffic, and instead of fixing what may be deemed to be reasonable compensation for its carriage, compel the carrier to transport it either at less than cost or for a compensation that is merely nominal.

These considerations are controlling here. The passenger traffic is one of the main departments of the company's business; it has its separate equipment, its separate organization and management, and of necessity its own rates. In making a reasonable adjustment of the carrier's charges, the State is under no obligation to secure the same rate of return from each of the two principal departments of business, passenger and freight; but the State may not select either of these departments for arbitrary control. Thus, it would not be contended that the State might require passengers to be carried for nothing, or that it could justify such action by placing upon the shippers of goods the burden of excessive charges in order to supply an adequate return for the carrier's entire service. And, on the same principle, it would also appear to be outside the field of reasonable adjustment that the State should demand the carriage of passengers at a rate so low that it would not defray the cost of their transportation, when the entire traffic under the rate was considered, or would provide only a nominal reward in addition to cost. That fact, satisfactorily proved, would be sufficient to rebut the presumption of reasonableness; and if in any case it could be said that there existed other criteria by reference to which the rate could still be supported as a reasonable one for the transportation in question, it would be necessary to cause this to appear. Northern Pacific Railway v. North Dakota, supra, and cases there cited.

2. So far as findings are concerned, we have in the present case simply a general, or ultimate, conclusion of

[ 236 U.S. Page 610]

     fact which is set forth in the decree of the state court; and it is necessary for us, in passing upon the Federal right which the plaintiff in error asserted, to analyze the facts in order to determine whether that which purports to be a finding of fact is so interwoven with the question of law as to be in substance a decision of the latter. Kansas City Southern Ry. v. Albers Commission Co., 223 U.S. 573, 591; Cedar Rapids Gas Co. v. Cedar Rapids, 223 U.S. 655, 668, 669; Oregon R. R. & N. Co. v. Fairchild, 224 U.S. 510, 528; ...


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