First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative v. Federal Power Commission/Dissent Frankfurter

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

328 U.S. 152

First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative  v.  Federal Power Commission

 Argued: March 8, 1946. --- Decided: April 29, 1946

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER dissenting.

This case does not present one of those large constitutional issues which, because they are so largely abstract, have throughout its history so often divided the Court. The controversy, as I understand it, is concerned with the proper administration of a law in which Congress has recognized the interests of the States as well as of the United States and has entrusted the proper adjustment of these nation-State relations to the interrelated functions of the Federal Power Commission and the courts.

We are all agreed that Congress has the constitutional power to promote a comprehensive development of the nation's water resources and that it has exercised its authority by the Federal Power Act. 41 Stat. 1063, 49 Stat. 838, 16 U.S.C. § 791a et seq., 16 U.S.C.A. § 791a et seq. See United States v. Chandler-Dunbar Water Power Co., 229 U.S. 53, 33 S.Ct. 667, 57 L.Ed. 1063; State of New Jersey v. Sargent, 269 U.S. 328, 46 S.Ct. 122, 70 L.Ed. 289; United States v. Appalachian Electric Power Co., 311 U.S. 377, 61 S.Ct. 291, 85 L.Ed. 243. And in view of Congress' power, of course this enactment overrides all State legislation in conflict with it. But the national policy for water power development formulate by the Federal Power Act explicitly recognizes regard for certain interests of the States as part of that national policy. This does not imply that general, uncritical notions about so-called 'States' rights' are to be read into what Congress has written. It does mean that we must adhere to the express Congressional mandate that the public interest which underlies the Federal Power Act involves the protection of particular matters of intimate concern to the people of the States in which proposed projects requiring the sanction of the Federal Power Commission are to be located. By § 9(b) of the Act, 41 Stat. 1063, 1068, 16 U.S.C. § 802(b), 16 U.S.C.A. § 802(b) [1] Congress explicitly required that before the Commission can issue a license for the construction of a hydroelectric development, such as the proposed project of the petitioner, the Commission must have 'satisfactory evidence that the applicant has complied with the requirements of the laws of the State' in reference to the matters enumerated.

Whether the Commission has such 'satisfactory evidence' necessarily depends upon what the requirements of State law are. In turn, what the requirements of State law are often depends upon the appropriate but unsettled construction of State law. And so, the Commission may well be confronted, as it was in this case, with the necessity of determining what the State law requires before it can determine whether the applicant has satisfied it, and, therefore, whether the condition for exercising the Commission's power has been fulfilled.

To safeguard the interests of the States thus protected by § 9(b), Congress has directed that notice be given to the State when an application has been filed for a license, the granting of which may especially affect a State. § 4(f), 49 Stat. 838, 841, 16 U.S.C. § 767(f), 16 U.S.C.A. § 797(f). If a State does not challenge the claim of an applicant, the evidence submitted by the applicant, if found to be satisfactory by the Commission, has met the demands of § 9(b), and a State cannot thereafter challenge the Commission's determination. But a real problem in administration is presented to the Power Commission when a State does intervene and claims that the applicant has not complied with its lawful requirements. For, before the Commission can meet the duty placed on it by § 9(b), it must ascertain the scope and meaning of the State law. Suppose the State law is not clear or is susceptible of different constructions and has received no construction by the only authoritative source for the interpretation of State laws, namely, the highest court of the State. Must the Federal Power Commission give an independent interpretation of the laws of the State? This is not to suggest an unreal or hypothetical situation. The Federal Power Commission submitted here a compilation of laws relating to State requirements relevant under § 9(b) for not less than thirty States. Are the lawyers of the Commission to make themselves the originating interpreters of the laws of these States? Are they to construe, for instance, the laws of New Jersey and Oklahoma and Arizona and Illinois when the courts of those States have not spoken? And if they do and the State appeals from the decision, must the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia become the interpreter of these various laws? Finally, in the event of a further appellate review is this Court to construe State legislation without guidance by the Stat courts? Time out of mind, and in a variety of situations, this Court has admonished against the avoidable assumption by this Court of the independent construction of State legislation. See, e.g., Gilchrist v. Interborough Rapid Transit Co., 279 U.S. 159, 207-209, 49 S.Ct. 282, 288, 289, 73 L.Ed. 652; Brandeis, J., dissenting, in Railroad Comm. v. Los Angeles Ry. Corp., 280 U.S. 145, 158, 164-166, 50 S.Ct. 71, 74, 76, 77, 74 L.Ed. 234. It is pertinent to recall the classic statement of the reason for leaving to the controlling interpretation of local courts the meaning of local law' 'to one brought up within it, varying emphasis, tacit assumptions, unwritten practices, a thousand influences gained only from life, may give to the different parts wholly new values that logic and grammar never could have gotten from the books.' Diaz v. Gonzalez, 261 U.S. 102, 106, 43 S.Ct. 286, 288, 67 L.Ed. 550. If it has been deemed unwise to throw upon this Court the burden of construing local legislation when the construction could by appropriate procedure be had from the States, it seems odd that we should reject this as a rule of administration adopted by the Power Commission.

That is all that the Commission has done in this case. It has said, in effect: 'We do not know what the Iowa law demands of the applicant. Iowa has a right to make certain demands under § 9(b) and until they are met we are not empowered to grant a license to the applicant. But we cannot tell whether they have been met, because the meaning of the Iowa statutes has not been determined as it easily can be determined, by an appropriate action in the Iowa courts. Only after such an authoritative pronouncement can we know what our obligation under the statute may be.' The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia thought that such procedure made sense. It seems to have said: 'The Commission doesn't know what the Iowa law requires, and neither do we. For we cannot tell what it requires until the Iowa Supreme Court tells us what it requires. And an adjudication of thatissue can be readily secured if the applicant will proceed along the easy path provided by Iowa for obtaining such an adjudication.' 151 F.2d 20. Even we cannot construe the requirements of Iowa law in the absence of a determination by the Iowa Supreme Court. And in much more conventional types of litigation we have evolved the procedure whereby federal litigation is stayed until the State law is authoritatively determined by a State court. E.g., Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971; Spector Motor Service, Inc., v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101, 65 S.Ct. 152; A.F. of L. v. Watson, 327 U.S. 582, 66 S.Ct. 761.

What reason of policy is there for not approving this mode of adjusting interests that involve a regard for both federal and State enactments? The Federal Power Commission which devised this procedure has not been an unzealous guardian of the national interests. E.g., F.P.C. v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co., 315 U.S. 575, 62 S.Ct. 736, 86 L.Ed. 1037; F.P.C. v. Hope Natural Gas Co., 320 U.S. 591, 64 S.Ct. 281, 88 L.Ed. 333.

It is no answer to suggest that the Attorney-General of Iowa at the bar of this Court expressed a view of the Iowa statute which would make obedience to it needless because of conflict with the provisions of the Federal Power Act. The Attorney-General is not the judicial organ of the State of Iowa. This Court does not always take the interpretation by the Attorney-General of the United States of a federal statute. It should not take the view of the Attorney-General of Iowa as authoritative on a statute not construed by the Supreme Court of Iowa when we are called upon to make the adjustment in federal-State relations which Congress has enjoined in § 9(b). After all, advocates, including advocates for States, are like managers of pugilistic and election contestants, in that they have a propensity for claiming everything. Before conflict can be found between federal and Sta e legislation, construction must be given the State legislation. Avoidance of conflict is itself an important factor relevant to construction. And so, construction of State legislation relating to the matters dealt with in the Federal Power Act is subtle business and a subtlety peculiarly within the duty, skill, and understanding of State judges.

If it be said that the procedure for which the Federal Power Commission contends may take time, there is no assurance that a contested case like this will not take just as much time hereafter. The Commission must pass independently on an unconstrued State statute; its construction may then come before the Court of Appeals for the District and eventually before this Court. Even then the possibility remains that this Court's decision will be followed by one in the State court ruling, as has not been unknown, that this Court's interpretation was in error. In any event, mere speed is not test of justice. Deliberate speed is. Deliberate speed takes time. But it is time well spent.

With due respect, I have not been able to discover an adequate answer to the position of the Federal Power Commission, thus summarized in the Solicitor-General's brief:

'Unless Section 9(b) is to be given no effect whatever, some evidence of compliance with at least some state laws is a prerequisite to the issuance of a federal license, and the view of the court below, that there is no occasion, in this case, to anticipate conflicts between state and federal authority and the consequent invalidity of the state law, is not an unreasonable one. 'To predetermine, even in the limited field of water power, the rights of different sovereignties, pregnant with future controversies, is beyond the judicial function,' United States v. Appalachian Electric Power Co., 311 U.S. 377, 423 (61 S.Ct. 291, 306, 85 L.Ed. 243). Here petitioner, since the modification of its plans, has given the State Executive Council and the Iowa courts no opportunity to express their views on its proposed project with reference to matters which may be peculiarly of local concern; without such an expression, it is difficult to assess the propriety of what is only an anticipated exercise of the State's power.'

Accordingly, I think that the judgment should be affirmed.


  1. 'Sec. 9. That each applicant for a license hereunder shall submit to the commission * * *

'(b) Satisfactory evidence that the applicant has complied with the requirements of the laws of the State or States within which the proposed project is to be located with respect to bed and banks and to the appropriation, diversion, and use of water for power purposes and with respect to the right to engage in the business of developing, transmitting, and distributing power, and in any other business necessary to effect the purposes of a license under this Act.'

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).