Open main menu

United States Supreme Court

77 U.S. 454

The Clinton Bridge

The first section of the act of Congress provides, 'that the bridge across the Mississippi River, erected by the Albany Bridge Company and the Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska Railroad Company, under the authority of the States of Iowa and Illinois, &c., shall be a lawful structure, and shall be recognized and known as a post route.'

We cannot doubt, upon a perusal of the section, but that it was the intention of Congress to legalize the bridge as then constructed across the river, and that the words used carry out fully this intent. It is declared 'a lawful structure;' that is, the bridge as built, with its abutments, piers, superstructures, draw, and height, should have the sanction of law, and be maintained and used in that state and condition until the law was altered by the reserved power in the last section.

The act of Congress in the case of the Wheeling Bridge, whose language it is sought to distinguish from that used in the present one, was more explicit, but not more comprehensive. In the Wheeling Bridge case the court had rendered a decree, directing the obstruction to be removed by elevating the bridge, or if not, by abatement. No doubt the existence of this decree, which was in the process of execution, led to the very specific terms of the act. But with all its particularity it is not more comprehensive or decisive in legalizing the bridges than the one before us.

The questions, whether or not it was competent for Congress to interfere and legalize the bridge under the power to regulate commerce, and whether or not the act put an end to the pending suit, were questions examined and settled in the affirmative in the case already referred to. [7] The reasons for the conclusions arrived at will be there found, and need not be repeated.

The only difference between the case of the Wheeling Bridge and the present one is, that in the former a decree had been rendered by the court against the bridge, in the latter the cause was pending undecided. It was, in the former case, insisted on behalf of the complainant, that the act of Congress could not invalidate the decree of the court. But it was answered that the decree of abatement of the obstruction was executory, a continuing decree, which required not only the removal of the bridge, but enjoined the defendants against any reconstruction. And that whether or not it would be a future existing obstruction depended upon the question whether it interfered with the right of free navigation, and that if, in the meantime, this right had been modified by competent authority, so that the bridge was no longer an unlawful obstruction, the decree of the court could not be enforced. There was no longer any interference with the enjoyment of the public right inconsistent with law no more than there would be if the complainant himself had given his consent after the decree.

In the present case the act of Congress having passed pending the suit, it gave the rule of decision for the court at the final hearing upon the same principle that the act in the Wheeling Bridge case staid the execution of the decree directing its abatement. The court say in that case that if the remedy had been an action at law, and a judgment rendered in favor of the plaintiff for damages, the right to these would have passed beyond the power of Congress. And if, in the present case, the action had been at common law for damages alleged to have been done to the property of the plaintiff before the passage of the act of Congress, very different considerations would have arisen as to the effect of the act upon this private right of action from that upon a simple proceeding to enjoin the building of the bridge; or, if built, to abate it as a nuisance.

We think that the ruling of the court below was right, and that the judgment should be



^7  18 Howard, 429.

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).