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Butchers' Union Slaughter-House Live-Stock Landing Company v. Crescent Slaughter-House Company/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

111 U.S. 746

Butchers' Union Slaughter-House Live-Stock Landing Company  v.  Crescent Slaughter-House Company

This is an appeal from the circuit court for the Eastern district of Louisiana. The appellee brought a suit in the circuit court to obtain an injunction against the appellant forbidding the latter from exercising the business of butchering, or receiving and landing live-stock intended for butchering, within certain limits in the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard, and obtained such injuction by a final decree in that court. He ground on which this suit was brought and sustained is that the plaintiffs had the exclusive right to have all such stock landed at their stock landing-place, and butchered at their slaughter-house, by virtue of an act of the general assembly of Louisiana, approved March 8, 1869, entitled 'An act to protect the health of the city of New Orleans, to locate the stock landing and slaughterhouses, and to incorporate the Crescent City Live-stock Landing & Slaughter-house Company.' An examination of that statute, especially of its fourth and fifth sections, leaves no doubt that it did grant such an exclusive right. The fact that it did so, and that this was conceded, was the basis of the contest in this court in the slaughter-house Cases, 16 Wall. 36, in which the law was assailed as a monopoly forbidden by the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the constitution of the United States, and these amendments, as well as the fifteenth, came for the first time before this court for construction. The constitutional power of the state be enact the statute was upheld by this court. This power was placed by the court in that case expressly on the ground that it was the exercise of the police power which had remained with the states in the formation of the original constitution of the United States, and had not been taken away by the amendments adopted since. Citing the definition of this power from Chancellor KENT, it declares that the statute in question came within it. 'Unwholesome trades, slaughter-houses, operations offensive to the senses, the deposit of powder, the application of steam-power to propel cars, the building with combustible materials, and the burial of the dead, may all (he says) be interdicted by law in the midst of dense masses of population, on the general and rational principle that every person ought so to use his property as not to injure his neighbors; and that private interests must be made subservient to the general interest of the community.' 2 Kent, Comm. 340; 16 Wall. 62. In this latter case it was added that 'the regulation of the place and manner of conducting the slaughtering of animals, and the business of butchering within a city, and the inspection of the animals to be killed for meat, and of the meat afterwards, are among the most necessary and frequent exercises of this power.'

But in the year 1879 the state of Louisiana adopted a new constitution, in which were the following articles:

'Art. 248. The police juries of the several parishes, and the constituted authorities of all incorporated municipalities of the state, shall alone have the power of regulating the slaughtering of cattle and other live-stock within their respective limits: Provided, no monopoly or exclusive privilege shall exist in this state, nor such business be restricted to the land or houses of any individual or corporation: provided, the ordinances designating places for slaughtering shall obtain the concurrent approval of the board of health or other sanitary organization.'

'Art. 258. * * * The monopoly features in the charter of any corporation now existing in the state, save such as may be contained in the charters of railroad companies, are hereby abolished.'

Under the authority of these articles of the constitution the municipal authorities of the city of New Orleans enacted ordinances which opened to general competition the right to build slaughter-houses, establish stock landings, and engage in the business of butchering in that city under regulations established by those ordinances, but which were in utter disregard of the monopoly granted to the Crescent City Company, and which in effect repealed the exclusive grant made to that company by the act of 1869. The appellant here, the Butchers' Union Slaughter-house Company, availing themselves of this repeal, entered upon the business, or were about to do so, by establishing their slaughter-house and stock landing within the limits of the grant of the act of 1869 to the Crescent City Company. Both these corporations, organized under the laws of Louisiana and doing business in that state, were citizens of the same state, and could not, in respect of that citizenship, sue each other in a court of the United States. The Crescent City Company, however, on the allegation that these constitutional provisions of 1879, and the subsequent ordinances of the city, were a violation of their contract with the state under the act of 1869, brought this suit in the circuit court as arising under the constitution of the United States, art. 1, § 10. That court sustained the view of the plaintiff below, and held that the act of 1869, and the acceptance of it by the Crescent City Company, constituted a contract for the exclusive right mentioned in it for 25 years; that it was within the power of the legislature of Louisiana to make that contract, and as the constitutional provisions of 1879 and the subsequent ordinances of the city impaired its obligation, they were to that extent void. No one can examine the provisions of the act of 1869, with the knowledge that they were accepted by the Cresecent City Company, and so far acted on that a very large amount of money was expended in a vast slaughter-house, and an equally extensive stock-yard and landing-place, and hesitate to pronounce that in form they have all the elements of a contract on sufficient consideration. It admits of as little doubt that the ordinance of the city of New Orleans, under the new constitution, impaired the supposed obligation imposed by those provisions on the state, by taking away the exclusive right of the company granted to it for 25 years, which was to the company the most valuable thing supposed to be secured to it by the statutory contract. We do not think it necessary to spend time in demonstrating either of these propositions. We do not believe they will be controverted.

The appellant, however, insists that, so far as the act of 1869 partakes of the nature of an irrepealable contract, the legislature exceeded its authority, and it had no power to tie the hands of the legislature in the future from legislating on that subject without being bound by the terms of the statute then enacted. This proposition presents the real point in the case. Let us see clearly what it is. It does not deny the power of that legislature to create a corporation, with power to do the business of landing live-stock and providing a place for slaughtering them in the city. It does not deny the power to locate the place where this shall be done exclusively. It does not deny even the power to give an exclusive right, for the time being, to particular persons or to a corporation to provide this stock landing and to establish this slaughter-house. But it does deny the power of that legislature to continue this right so that no future legislature, nor even the same body, can repeal or modify it, or grant similar privileges to others. It concedes that such a law, so long as it remains on the statute-book as the latest expression of the legislative will, is a valid law, and must be obeyed, which is all that was decided by this court in the Slaughter-house Cases. But it asserts the right of the legislature to repeal such a statute, or to make a new one inconsistent with it, whenever, in the wisdom of such legislature, it is for the good of the public it should be done. Nor does this proposition contravene the established principle that the legislature of a state may make contracts on many subjects which will bind it, and will bind succeeding legislatures for the time the contract has to run, so that its provisions can neither be repealed nor its obligation impaired. The examples are numerous where this has been done and the contract upheld. The denial of this power, in the present instance, rests upon the ground that the power of the legislature intended to be suspended is one so indispensable to the public welfare that it cannot be bargained away by contract. It is that well-known but undefined power called the police power. We have not found a better definition of it for our present purpose than the extract from Kent's Commentaries in the earlier part of this opinion. 'The power to regulate unwholesame trades, slaughter-houses, operations offensive to the senses,' there mentioned, point unmistakably to the powers exercised by the act of 1869, and the ordinances of the city under the constitution of 1879. While we are not prepared to say that the legislature can make valid contracts on no subject embraced in the largest definition of the police power, we think that, in regard to two subjects so embraced, it cannot, by any contract, limit the exercise of those powers to the prejudice of the general welfare. These are the public health and public morals. The preservation of these is so necessary to the best interests of social organization, that a wise policy forbids the legislative body to divest itself of the power to enact laws for the preservation of health and the repression of crime.

It cannot be permitted that, when the constitution of a state, the fundamental law of the land, has imposed upon its legislature the duty of guarding, by suitable laws, the health of its citizens, especially in crowded cities, and the protection of their person and property by suppressing and preventing crime, that the power which enables it to perform this duty can be sold, bargained away, under any circumstances, as if it were a mere privilege which the legislator could dispose of at his pleasure. This principle has been asserted and repeated in this court in the last few years in no ambiguous terms. The first time it seems to have been distinctly and clearly presented was in the case of Boyd v. Alabama, 94 U.S. 646. That was a writ of error to the supreme court of Alabama, brought by Boyd, who had been convicted in the courts of that state of carrying on a lottery contrary to law. In his defense, he relied upon a statute which authorized lotteries for a specific purpose, under which he held a license. The repeal of this statute, which made his license of no avail against the general law forbidding lotteries, was asserted by his counsel to be void as impairing the obligation of the contract, of which his license was evidence, and the supreme court of Alabama had in a previous case held it to be a contract. In Boyd's Case, however, that court held the law under which his license was issued to be void, because the object of it was not expressed in the title as required by the constitution of the state. This court followed that decision, and affirmed the judgment on that ground. But in the concluding sentences of the opinion by Mr. Justice FIELD, the court, to repel the inference that the contract would have been irrepealable if the statute had conformed to the special requirement of the constitution, said: 'We are not prepared to admit that it is competent for one legislature, by any contract with an individual, to restrain the power of a subsequent legislature to legislate for t e public welfare, and to that end to suppress any and all practices tending to corrupt the public morals,' citing Moore v. State, 48 Miss. 147, and Metropolitan Board of Excise v. Barrie, 34 N. Y. 663. This cautionary declaration received the unanimous concurrence of the court, and a year later the principle became the foundation of the decision in the case of Beer Co. v. Massachusetts, 97 U.S. 28. In that case the plaintiff in error, the Boston Beer Company, had been chartered in 1828 with a right to manufacture beer, which this court held to imply the right to sell it. Subsequent statutes of a prohibitory character seemed to interfere with this right, and the case was brought to this court on the ground that they impaired the obligation of the contract of the charter. But the court, speaking by Justice BRADLEY, held that, on this subject, the legislature of Massachusetts could make no irrepealable contract. 'Whatever differences of opinion,' said the court, 'may exist as to the extent and boundaries of the police power, and however difficult it may be to render a satisfactory definition of it, there seems to be no doubt that it does extend to the protection of the lives, health, and property of the citizens, and to the preservation of good order and public morals. The legislature cannot by any contract divest itself of the power to provide for these objects. They belong emphatically to that class of objects which demand the application of the maxim, salus populi suprema lex, and they are to be attained and provided for by such appropriate means as the legislative discretion may devise. That discretion can no more be bargained away than the power itself.'

In the still more recent case of Stone v. Mississippi, 101 U.S. 814, the whole subject is reviewed in the opinion delivered by the chief justice. That also was a case of a chartered lottery, whose charter was repealed by a constitution of the state subsequently adopted. It came here for relief, relying on the clause of the federal constitution against impairing the obligation of contracts. 'The question is therefore presented, (says the opinion,) whether, in view of these facts, the legislature of a state can, by the charter of a lottery company, defeat the will of the people authoritatively expressed, in relation to the further continuance of such business in their midst. We think it cannot. No legislature can bargain away the public health or the public morals. The people themselves cannot do it, much less their servants. The supervision of both these subjects of governmental power is continuing in its nature, and they are to be dealt with as the special exigencies of the moment may require. Government is organized with a view to their preservation, and cannot divest itself of the power to provide for them. For this purpose the legislative discretion is allowed, and the discretion cannot be parted with any more than the power itself.'

But the case of the Fertilizing Co. v. Hyde Park, 97 U.S. 659, is, perhaps, more directly in point as regard the facts of the case, while asserting the same principle. The Fertilizing Company was chartered by the Illinois legislature for the purpose of converting, by chemical processes, the dead animal matter of the slaughter-houses of the city of Chicago into a fertilizing material. Some ordinances of the village of Hyde Park, through wich this dead matter was carried to their chemical works, were supposed to impair the rights of contract conferred by the charter. The opinion cites the language of the court in Beer Co. v. Massachusetts, supra, and numerous other cases, of the exercise of the police power in protecting health and property, and holds that the charter conferred no irrepealable right for the 50 years of its duration to continue a practice injurious to the public health.

These cases are cited, and their views adopted in the opinion of the supreme court of Louisiana, in a suit between the same parties, in regard to the same matter as the present case, and which was brought to this court by writ of error, and dismissed before a hearing by the present appellee.

The result of these considerations is that the constitution of 1879, and the ordinances of the city of New Orleans which are complained of, are not void as impairing the obligation of complainant's contract, and that the decree of the circuit court must be reversed, and the case remanded to that court, with directions to dismiss the bill.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).