Open main menu

Miller v. Mayor of the City of New York/Opinion of the Court

< Miller v. Mayor of the City of New York

United States Supreme Court

109 U.S. 385

Miller  v.  Mayor of the City of New York


This suit was commenced in May, 1876, to restrain the erection of the suspension bridge then under construction over East river, in the state of New York, between the cities of New York and Brooklyn, at the height of 135 feet above the river at high-water mark, which was the proposed elevation of the structure. As the bridge has since been completed, if the plaintiff can make good his contention, and establish that when he filed his bill he was entitled to the relief prayed, he may claim that the bridge shall be raised to a greater elevation, or be entirely abated. He is the lessee of certain warehouses on the banks of the river above the point of the proposed crossing of the bridge, and he states that he brings the suit on behalf of himself and of all others similarly situated. No one, however, has united with him in its prosecution. He stands alone as complainant, and alleges that the bridge, if erected as projected and intended to the height designated, would be built without lawful power and authority; that it would be a nuisance, and obstruct, impair, and injuriously modify the navigation of the river, and might seriously and prejudicially affect the commerce of the port of New York; that merchant vessels from the New England states and British provinces, and from ports south of New York, and vessels engaged in foreign commerce, pass and repass on the river the intended location of the bridge; that the masts of a large proportion of these vessels exceed 135 feet in height; and that the expense to them of striking parts of their masts in passing under the bridge if built as proposed, with the detention and additional towage rendered necessary, would be so great as to destroy his warehouse business and be a private and irreparable injury to him, for which an action at law would afford no adequate redress. He accordingly prays an adjudication of the court upon the character and effect of the proposed bridge in conformity with these allegations, and an injunction restraining the further prosecution of the work of building it at the height of 135 feet above mean high-water, or at any other height that would obstruct, impair, or injuriously modify the navigation of the river.

The court below did not find in the allegations of a possible loss to the plaintiff in his warehouse business, or in the proofs offered to sustain them, sufficient ground to restrain the completion of the work. It dismissed his complaint as being without substantial merit. We approve of its action and decree. The erection of the bridge at the elevation proposed was authorized by the action of both the state and federal governments. It would, therefore, when completed, be a lawful structure. If, as now completed, it obstructs, in any respect, the navigation of the river, it does so merely to an extent permitted by the only authorities which could act upon the subject. And the injury then apprehended, and alleged by the plaintiff and now sustained, is only such as is common to all persons engaged in commerce on the river and doing business on its banks, and therefore not the subject of judicial cognizance. These conclusions will clearly appear by a reference to the legislation under which the work was commenced and prosecuted.

It is contended by the plaintiff with much earnestness that the approval of the secretary of war of the plan and location of the bridge was not conclusive as to its character and effect upon the navigation of the river, and that it was still open to him to show that if constructed as proposed it would be an obstruction to such navigation as fully as though such approval had not been had. It is argued that congress could not give any such effect to the action of the secretary, it being judicial in its character. There is in this position a misaprehension of the purport of the act. By submitting the matter to the secretary, congress did not abdicate any of its authority to determine what should or should not be deemed an obstruction to the navigation of the river. It simply declared that, upon a certain fact being established, the bridge should be deemed a lawful structure, and employed the secretary of war as an agent to ascertain that fact. Having power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and navigation being a branch of that commerce, it has the control of all navigable waters between the states or connecting with the ocean, so as to preserve and protect their free navigation. Its power, therefore, to determine what shall not be deemed, so far as that commerce is concerned, an obstruction, is necessarily paramount and conclusive. It may in direct terms declare absolutely, or on conditions, that a bridge of a particular height shall not be deemed such an obstruction; and, in the latter case, make its declaration take effect when those conditions are complied with. The act in question, in requiring the approval of the secretary before the construction of the bridge was permitted, was not essentially different from a great mass of legislation, directing certain measures to be taken upon the happening of particular contingencies, or the ascertainment of particular information. The execution of a vast number of measures authorized by congress, and carried out under the direction of heads of departments, would be defeated if such were not the case. The efficiency of an act as a declaration of legislative will must, of course, come from congress, but the ascertainment of the contingency upon which the act shall take effect may be left to such agencies as it may designate. South Carolina v. Georgia, 93 U.S. 13.

It is also objected that the notice given by the chief engineer to the company was not a compliance with the requirement that notification should be given by the secretary; but there is not force in the objection. When a secretary of the government is required to give information on any subject, he may act, and generally does act, through officers under him. He is not expected to make over his own signature all the communications required from the department of which he is the head. It would be impracticable for him to do so. The official communication is deemed made by him when it is made under his sanction and direction.

The bridge being constructed in accordance with the legislation of both the state and federal governments, must be deemed a lawful structure. It cannot, after such legislation, be treated as a public nuisance; and however much it may interfere with the public right of navigation in the East river, and thereby affect the profits or business of private persons, it cannot, on that ground, be the subject of complaint before the courts. The plaintiff is not deprived of his property nor of the enjoyment of it; nor does he from that cause suffer any damage different in character from the rest of the public. He alleges that his business of a warehouse-keeper on the banks of the river above the bridge will be in some degree lessened by the delay attending the passage under it of vessels with high masts. The inconvenience and possible loss of business from this cause are not different from that which others on the banks of the river above the bridge may suffer. Every public improvement, while adding to the convenience of the people at large, affects more or less injuriously the interests of some. A new channel of commerce opened, turning trade into it from other courses, may affect the business and interests of persons who live on the old routes. A new mode of transportation may render of little value old conveyances. Every railway in a new country interferes with the business of stage coaches and side-way taverns; and it would not be more absurd for their owners to complain of and object to its construction than for parties on the banks of the East river to complain of and object to the improvement which connects the two great cities on the harbor of New York.

Several cases have been before this court relating to bridges over navigable waters of the United States in which questions were raised as to the authority by which the bridges could be constructed, the extent to which they could be permitted to obstruct the free navigation of the waters, and the right of private parties to interfere with their construction or continuance. In these cases all the questions presented in the case at bar have been considered and determined, and what we hereafter say in this opinion will be little more than a condensation of what was there declared. The power vested in congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states includes the control of the navigable waters of the United States so far as may be necessary to insure their free navigation; and by 'navigable waters of the United States' are meant such as are navigable in fact, and which, by themselves or their connection with other waters, form a continuous channel for commerce with foreign countries or among the states. The Daniel Ball, 10 Wall. 557. East river is such a navigable water. It enters the harbor of New York and connects it with Long Island sound. Whatever, therefore, may be necessary to preserve or improve its navigation the general government may direct; and to that end it can determine what shall and what shall not be deemed an interference with or an obstruction to such navigation.

In the Wheeling Bridge Case, a bridge erected over the Ohio river at Wheeling, under an act of the legislature of Virginia, which prevented the passage of steam-boats with high chimneys, was adjudged to be an unlawful structure; and the court ordered that it should be raised so as to afford a free passage to the steamers, or that some other plan should be adopted by a day designated which would relieve the navigation from the obstruction, or that the bridge should be abated. Congress thereupon interfered, and declared the bridge, as it was built at its existing elevation, to be a lawful structure. The court then held that the objection to the bridge as an obstruction to the navigation of the river was removed; that although it might still be an obstruction in fact, it was not so in contemplation of law, and the decree of the court for the abatement of the bridge could not be enforced. 'There was no longer,' said the court, 'any interference with the enjoyment of the public right, inconsistent with the law, no more than there would be where the plaintiff himself had consented to it after the rendition of the decree.' For its interference with the public use of the stream no individual could complain, as the power which could control and regulate that use had made the structure creating the interference a lawful one. 18 How. 430.

The case of Gilman v. Philadelphia, 3 Wall. 713, is much stronger than the Wheeling Bridge Case, and is conclusive against the pretensions of the plaintiff. It there appeared that a bridge was about to be built over the Schuylkill river at Chestnut street in the city of Philadelphia, under the authority of an act of the legislature of Pennsylvania, when a party owning valuable coal wharves just above Chestnut street filed a bill to prevent its erection, alleging, as in the present case, that it would be an unlawful obstruction to the navigation of the river, and a public nuisance, inflicting upon him special damage, and claiming that he was entitled to be protected by an injunction to restrain the progress of the work, and to a decree of abatement should it be completed. The river was tide-water, and navigable to the wharves of the plaintiff by vessels drawing from 18 to 20 feet of water; and, for years, commerce to them had been carried on in all kinds of vessels. The bridge was to be only 30 feet high and without draws, and, of course, would cut off all ascent above it of vessels carrying masts. The city justified its intended action under the act of the legislature, setting up that the bridge was a necessity for public convenience to large population residing on both sides of the stream. The court below dismissed the bill, and this court affirmed its decree, holding that as the river was wholly within her limits the state could authorize the construction of a bridge until congress should, by appropriate legislation, interfere and assume control of the subject. In giving its opinion the court observed that it should not be forgotten that bridges which are connecting parts of turnpikes, streets, and railroads are means of commercial transportation as well as navigable waters, and that the commerce over them may be greater than on the water; that it was for the municipal power to determine which should be preferred, and how far either should be made subservient to the other; and that this power could be exercised by the state until congress interfered and took control of the matter.

All the considerations which governed the decision of that case operate with equal, if not greater, force in the present case. In that case different parts of a city separated by a navigable water were connected by a bridge; in this case two cities thus separated are united. In that case the obstruction was complete and permanent to all vessels having masts; in this case the obstruction does not exist except to a limited class of vessels having high masts, and to them it is little more than a temporary inconvenience. In that case there was no approval of the structure by congress, except such as may be inferred from its silence; in this case there is its direct authorization of the bridge after a careful consideration of its effect upon navigation by a commission of distinguished engineers. In that case the bridge was held to be a lawful structure against all private parties, the federal government alone having the right to object to the obstruction to the navigation of the river which it might cause and to remove it; in this case that government does not object, but approves and sanctions the structure; and the public benefit from it far outweighs any inconvenience arising from its interference with the navigation of the stream.

The recent case of Escanaba Co. v. Chicago, 107 U.S. 678, [S.C.. 2 SUP. CT. REP. 185,] follows the decision in Gilman v. Philadelphia, and is equally pointed and decisive. In the light of these cases (and others of the same purport might be cited) the claim of the plaintiff that the construction of the great work which was to connect, and which has since then connected, the cities of New York and Brooklyn should have been suspended, appears to be wholly without merit.

The decree of the court below be affirmed; and it is so ordered.

NotesEdit

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).