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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES,
OCTOBER TERM, 1890.
In re GARNETT AND OTHERS.
No. 19. Original. Argued March 9, 10, 1891. – Decided May 25, 1891.
The law of limited liability is part of the maritime law of the United States,
and is in force upon navigable rivers above tide water, and applies to enrolled and licensed vessels exclusively engaged in commerce on such a river.
On the 2d of February, 1891, leave was granted to Mr. Walter Van Rensselaer Berry to file the petition of Garnett, Stubbs & Co. and several others for a writ of prohibition to prohibit the judge of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern Division of the Southern District of Georgia from proceeding with a suit in admiralty in that court, in which John Lawton, owner of the steamer Katie, had libelled that vessel and summoned the petitioners as defendants. Leave was granted, and the petition was filed, to which was attached a copy of the libel.
It appeared that the Katie was a steamer engaged in the carrying trade between Augusta on the Savannah River and Savannah, on the same river, both in the State of Georgia ; that in October, 1887, she received from the various peti
Statement of the Case.
tioners, and from various points along the river, cotton to be transported for each petitioner; and that while making the voyage she took fire and some of the cotton was burned, and other bales were thrown overboard. The owners or consignees of the cotton which had been damaged or lost brought suits against Lawton, as a common carrier, to recover in each case, its value. There were ten actions in all, and their aggregate claims were about sixteen thousand dollars.
Thereupon Lawton filed the libel in question alleging, as set forth in the petition, “ that the amount sued for in said cases, and the loss and damage happening by means of or by reason of said fire, exceeded the value of said steamboat and her freight on said voyage, and that said fire was not caused by any negligence of said libellant or of the master and crew of said steamboat, and that under the act of Congress, approved March 3, 1851, as amended by the act of Congress, approved June 19, 1886, said libellant was not in any wise liable for said loss or damage; and claiming further, in the event of any liability, the benefit of the limitation provided in the ihird and fourth sections of said act of March 3, 1851, a copy of said libel and its Exhibits' being hereunto annexed."
The petition further alleged “That afterwards, to wit, on the 8th day of March, 1888, an appraisement of said steamboat and freight was had, said steamboat being appraised at $3300 and the freight at $196.75, making a total of $3496.75, for which said sum the said John Lawton entered into the usual stipulation on May 4, 1889.”
From the answer of the district judge it appeared that the defendants in the admiralty suit had demurred to the libel and had moved to dismiss the same “because the fourth section of the act of Congress approved June 19, 1886, is alleged to be unconstitutional ;” and that the court had overruled the demurrer, and dismissed the motion, and ordered the cause to proceed.
This fourth section is as follows: “Section 4. That section 4289, of the Revised Statutes, be amended so as to read as follows: ‘Section 4289. The provisions of the seven preceding sections and of section eighteen of an act entitled "An act to re
Argument for Petitioner.
move certain burdens on the American merchant marine, and to encourage the American foreign carrying trade, and other purposes," approved June twenty-sixth, eighteen hundred and eighty-four, relating to the limitations of the liability of the owners of vessels, shall apply to all sea-going vessels, and also to all vessels used on lakes or rivers, or in inland navigation, including canal-boats, barges and lighters."" 24 Stat.
Mr. Samuel B. Adams for the petitioner.
I. Our main contention is that the words here used are none of them limited, as an act of Congress must be in order to be valid; even if the validity of such legislation is not confined to the commerce clause of the Constitution, and may be supported by the clause touching the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the courts of the United States, and even although this act can be regarded as simply a regulation of the vessel itself.
We must bear in mind that we are not attacking an act of a State, where the legislature has all the powers except those prohibited, but an act of Congress, concerning whose powers it has been properly said in Potter's “Dwarris on Statutes and Constitutions,” pages 367 and 368: “When those powers are questioned, the only duty of the court is to see whether the grant of specific powers is broad enough to embrace the act.” To the same effect are the decisions of this court in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 1 Wheat. 304, 326; Trade Mark Cases, 100 U. S. 82, 93; and in Gilman v. Philadelphia, 3 Wall. 713, 725, 726.
In the Trade Mark Cases this court, in holding that the words “any person or firm ” were too broad, uses this clear and emphatic language, “When, therefore, Congress undertakes to enact a law which can only be valid as a regulation of commerce, it is reasonable to expect to find, on the face of the law, or from its essential nature, that it is a regulation of commerce with foreign nations, or among the several States, or with the Indian tribes. If not so limited it is in excess of the power of Congress.
Argument for Petitioner.
We fully recognize the familiar principle that a law may be constitutional in part and bad in part. Under this principle the words “sea-going vessels,” covering maritime commerce, may be saved because they are capable of separation from the rest of the clause; but the courts never change, limit or restrict (which would change) the natural and obvious meaning of words so as to amend the statute into harmony with the fundamental law. If the words used are susceptible of two constructions, one that will harmonize the law with the Constitution, and another which will bring it into hostility, the courts will adopt the former construction. But when the words used are clear and unambiguous, and these words evince an unconstitutional exercise of power, the courts cannot save the law. One of the main purposes of the law as it previously stood, (although the excepting clause was more comprehensive than the necessities of this purpose demanded,) was to save internal commerce from the operation of the limited liability sections. And it seems to us clear that one of the main purposes of the amendment was to include this internal commerce. Whether this was a controlling purpose or not, every word used which can in any wise be applied to the case at bar, is broad enough to necessarily cover every form of internal commerce carried on by water, and every form of craft, no matter how insignificant its draft, and no matter how exclusively local and humble its business. This court will be asked, in order to save the law, that it limit this act of 1886 to the constitutional limitations of Congress, when the purpose of the law is that it be unlimited and unrestricted. If this act be good, there is no limit to the power of Congress in the regulation of commerce. The Constitution does not restrict it to water, and therefore it can pass an act limiting ever so radically the liability of a common carrier anywhere, no matter how thoroughly internal and local its business. The Genesee Chief, 12 How. 443, 452; Pensacola Tel. Co. v. Western Union Tel. Co., 96 U. S. 1, 8, 9.
If this law can find support in the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction clause, then, we repeat, it is still, in all of the terms that are germane, entirely too broad, unless this court