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United States v. Commodities Trading Corporation Commodities Trading Corporation/Dissent Frankfurter

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United States Supreme Court

339 U.S. 121

United States  v.  Commodities Trading Corporation Commodities Trading Corporation

 Argued: Jan. 10, 11, 1950. --- Decided: March 27, 1950

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, dissenting in part.

In 1933 Commodities Trading Corporation began to accumulate an inventory of black pepper, not as a trader in pepper but as an investor in a nonperishable commodity. It based this investment policy on the fairly regular cyclical fluctuations of pepper prices over a period of about seventy-five years. This regularity was due to the fact that pepper plantings in Sumatra, French Indo-China and India, which supplied almost all of it, fluctuated with the price of pepper in the world market. Neglect of their crops by the native growers in periods of depressed prices lowered supply; thereby prices were raised and this in turn stimulated new plantings. Since it takes the pepper plant about four years to bear, prices would normally maintain their high level for about that period. The operations of Commodities were based on the expectation that it would profitably adjust the sale of its holdings to the cyclical movement.

By 1938 Commodities had accumulated 25,000,000 pounds; by December, 1941, it had disposed of about 8,000,000 pounds. The rest it withheld from the market until the requisition here in controversy was made by the War Department, in May, 1944. December, 1941, is a significant date because a ceiling price on pepper was then established. The price at which it was pegged-6.75 cents per pound, amended shortly thereafter to 6.50 cents plus limited carrying charges-approximated the market price at the time the free market in pepper came to an end. This free market price was responsive to the then unusually large inventory of pepper in the country, amounting to from 78,000,000 to 100,000,000 pounds, a three-year supply. The Government forbade importation of high-priced pepper from India, and the other sources of supply were cut off by the Japanese invasion. As a result, stocks rapidly declined, the fall being accelerated after the imposition of ceiling prices by a desire on the part of many importers to avoid additional carrying charges. By September, 1943, only about 28,000,000 pounds were in the hands of importers. Of this Commodities held, as we have seen, 17,000,000. From about the middle of 1942 activity had steadily shrunk and by early 1944 pepper was not for sale.

In May, 1944, the War Department requisitioned from Commodities about 760,000 pounds of black pepper. Commodities rejected the Government's offer of compensation at the ceiling price and this suit to recover 'just compensation' followed.

On the basis of its 'special findings of fact' the Court of Claims held that the ceiling price was not the measure of just compensation for the requisitioned pepper. It deemed the right to withhold from sale nonperishable goods until after price control terminated a value of substance to be included in ascertaining just compensation. The inclusion of this 'retention value' in the present circumstances was especially appropriate, so the Court of Claims reasoned, because Commodities was not a trader but a long-term investor. After the controls were removed in 1946, pepper sold at 50 to 60 cents a pound and upward and the Court of Claims deemed these free market values relevant in determining the just compensation for the pepper requisitioned in 1944. In giving an award above the ceiling price, that court was further influenced by the fact that the cost of the pepper it attributed to Commodities-12.7 cents per pound-exceeded the ceiling. Taking all the factors it deemed relevant into account, 15 cents per pound was found by that court to be just compensation for the pepper taking.

I. The 'just compensation' required by the Bill of Rights when 'private property (is) taken for public use' has a way of attracting far-flung contentions. So here, extreme positions are taken regarding the relevance of ceiling prices to 'just compensation.' On the one hand it is urged that ceiling prices are to be treated as though they represent value determined by a free market. On the other hand it is insisted that since it would be unjust for the Government itself to fix the compensation for what it takes, ceiling prices should be ignored. I agree with what I understand to be the Court's view in rejecting both these absolutes.

War conditions drastically change the economic environment in which a free market has its justification. The purpose of government controls is to terminate such a distorted free market. Since ceiling prices are required by law to be 'generally fair and equitable' [1] and govern voluntary sales of property, they are not irrelevant in assessing just compensation. The value of private property is not immutable; especially is it not immune from the consequences of governmental policies. In the exercise of its constitutional powers, Congress, by general enactments may in diverse ways cause even appreciable pecuniary loss without compensation. 'Government hardly could go on if to some extent values incident to property could not be diminished without paying for every such change in the general law. * * * When (the diminution) reaches a certain magnitude, in most if not in all cases there must be an exercise of eminent domain and compensation to sustain the act. So the question depends upon the particular facts.' Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393, 413, 43 S.Ct. 158, 159, 67 L.Ed. 322, 28 A.L.R. 1321. See also Hudson County Water Co. v. McCarter, 209 U.S. 349, 355, 28 S.Ct. 529, 531, 52 L.Ed. 828, 14 Ann.Cas. 560; Pipeline Cases (U.S. v. Ohio Oil Co.), 234 U.S. 548, 561, 34 S.Ct. 956, 958, 58 L.Ed. 1459; Jackman v. Rosenbaum Co., 260 U.S. 22, 31, 43 S.Ct. 9, 67 L.Ed. 107.

It does not follow that controlled prices automatically meet the requirements for just compensation in the forcible taking of property simply because they replaced free market prices which could no longer be relied on to reflect the normal play of free economic forces. A system of price controls which is 'generally fair and equitable' may give rise to individual instances of hardship in the requisitioning of property no matter how conscientiously and competently administered. See Bowles v. Willingham, 321 U.S. 503, 516-518, 64 S.Ct. 641, 648-649, 88 L.Ed. 892. The hardship may reach such magnitude in an individual instance as to make a taking by the public at a ceiling price unjust compensation. Of course war means burdens, and there is no calculus by which they can be fairly distributed. From any point of view the ultimate sacrifices are uncompensable. But these considerations are not relevant in carrying out the Fifth Amendment. When there is a taking of property for public use, whether in war or in peace, the burden of the taking is the community's burden. The owner should be requited by that which satisfies prevailing standards of justice. This limitation upon the power of eminent domain has throughout our history been left for judicial application. We would be faced with a new problem had Congress specified that the ceiling prices should be the limit of just compensation. Such a statute would call for the usual respect to be accorded to the judgment of Congress in passing on the validity of legislation when the power of Congress to legislate is limited by broad standards and not by restrictions almost technical in their nature. We are relieved from a consideration of any such question because Congress chose not to make ceiling price the measure of 'just compensation.' It is therefore an inescapable judicial duty to explore the elements relevant to just compensation even for the taking of property which, as to voluntary transactions, is subject to price control. The standard of just compensation is not mechanically to be replaced by ceiling prices.

It takes us some distance neither wholly to accept nor wholly to reject price ceilings as just compensation. The complications introduced by the displacement of free market prices by controlled prices serve to intensify the usual wariness against undue generalizations in ascertaining the value of specific property taken for public purposes. Cautious empiricism is the most promising attitude in dealing with problems of this sort. This means hugging as closely as possible the shore of the circumstances of the particular case.

On the present record only two issues need to be faced. In arriving at just compensation did the Court of Claims properly take into account (1) a 'retention value' and (2) the cost of the pepper to Commodities.

II. The Court of Claims appears to have recognized as a component of just compensation the right of a property owner to withhold his property for some future opportunity of enhanced realization, even though he be in the same boat with all other owners for whom the ceiling price is a fair measure. In its bearing upon our immediate problem, recognition of such a 'retention value' as part of the contemporaneous value of what was taken would have required the power to 'divine prophetically' the war's end and the lifting of controls by Congress as well as the state of the pepper market thereafter. This is 'to exact gifts that mankind does not possess.' International Harvester Co. of America v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 234 U.S. 216, 223, 224, 34 S.Ct. 853, 855, 856, 58 L.Ed. 1284. To allow such wild imagination to enter into the practical determination of what is just compensation would merely sanction unbridled drafts on the Treasury. It would encourage every property owner to hold his goods off the market and to force the Government to requisition rather than purchase. That, by such retention, profits might be realized in the distant future is not an interest which the Constitution protects.

The diffused loss of profit throughout the nation's economy must be borne as a part of the common lot. Of a different order of loss would be a taking of the pepper at ceiling prices, if the ceiling price was far below the cost of the pepper to Commodities and such cost was incurred in the normal course of long-term holding operations. This might present a situation whereby the owner of the requisitioned property would be asked to bear more than its fair share of the just economic burden of the war.

III. The Court of Claims found that the cost to Commodities of the requisitioned pepper was 12.7 cents per pound compared with the ceiling price of 6.5 cents. The Government challenges the cost figures. It points out that Commodities kept its cost records on the basis of specific bags of pepper, each bag being recorded at its invoice cost and the applicable carrying charges. Commodities selected the bags of pepper delivered to the Government. Apparently it chose the bags which had the highest invoice cost and the greatest carrying charges, the pepper bought in 1933-1936. Assuming that costs higher than ceiling prices may affect just compensation, the Court of Claims should have considered whether the high cost of the pepper turned over to the Government was due to Commodities' accounting system. Since pepper is fungible and does not have age value, for all that appears Commodities' method of computing costs may have been unfair to the Government. 'Just compensation' is not a function of a seller's theory of accounting.

The Court's opinion, however, holds that whatever the costs they are irrelevant in assessing just compensation. Thereby the Court disregards in the concrete the principle which it avows in the abstract-namely, that ceiling prices are not to be deemed as though they were values arrived at in a free market and that individual instances of hardship may properly receive individual consideration. The Court urges that high costs would be irrelevant in peacetime when an uncontrolled market determines value. Compare Vogelstein & Co. v. United States, 262 U.S. 337, 43 S.Ct. 564, 67 L.Ed. 1012. But a controlled market is not an uncontrolled market. Only by treating a controlled market as the equivalent of an uncontrolled market can ceiling prices be made the equivalent of market value and thereby the measure of just compensation.

Since 'just compensation' is not easily reduced to quantitative determination, the price which is arrived at through the haggling of the market is the accepted norm in determining just compensation. The law sensibly recognizes that market price reflects fair dealing by men who are freely engaged in it. But the psychological basis for the norm is gone when the area of fair dealing is eliminated. The replacement of the free jostling of the desires of buyers and sellers by government edict is no doubt due to the realization that under the abnormal circumstances of war a free market in the sense of being uncontrolled is not a fair market. But such price regulation is the imposition of the will of outsiders and not the distillation of freely directed wills guided by self-interest. The norm of price fixing by government is thus very different from the usual price fixing by free exchange. Governmental price fixing carries its own valid titles for respect by the courts. But it does not carry that title of self-determination, as it were, which is implied by a free market price. Want of a free market value does not require us to embrace automatically the ceiling price in disregard of other relevant circumstances bearing on justice in a particular case.

Costs, unlike 'retention value,' do not yield inherently speculative results. Including costs in computing just compensation does not give the condemnee a 'war profit' nor make inroads on the system of price controls. Such inclusion is a safeguard against discriminating hardships resulting from a formula which is generally fair but which by its nature cannot be fair to each individual. By the terms of the Price Control Act the only standard which Congress laid down for price fixing was that the ceiling price be 'generally fair and equitable'. The Act itself made no provision for individual relief from the general price. The administrative discretion for enforcing the Act vested in the Price Administrator no doubt authorized him to qualify the prices he fixed by procedure for individual relief therefrom. As to many commodities the maximum price schedules did include such provisions. The price regulation regarding the pepper requisitioned from Commodities contained no such provision. There was no way, therefore, by which Commodities could have had relief from any unfairness of the maximum price affecting its pepper by reason of the high cost which, on the basis of legitimate business considerations, it paid.

It is significant that Congress provided in § 4(d) of the Emergency Price Control Act that 'Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require any person to sell any commodity * * *.' 56 Stat. 28, 50 U.S.Appendix, § 904(d), 50 U.S.C.A.Appendix, § 904(d). This protective provision is peculiarly applicable to sellers who had acquired nonperishable property by way of reasonable investment at costs above the ceiling price. Under § 4(d) they were not required to take a loss. But today's decision withdraws that statutory protection from those subjected to the exercise of the Government's power of condemnation. It may be that, despite § 4(d), certain sellers with high costs would have had to sell in the private market because of economic factors. There is considerable difference, however, between hardships resulting from the impersonal workings of a general regulation and the personal operation of the power of eminent domain, under which Government officials have complete discretion to select the individual who shall give up his property at a loss for the public good.

We need not decide whether costs exceeding the ceiling price are always relevant to just compensation or the extent to which they may qualify the ceiling price. It is enough to hold that, if Commodities' costs, fairly measured, were greater than the ceiling price for pepper, it is fair to take them into account. We are not dealing here with a hoarder or with one who bought property at recklessly high costs in the expectation that, in any event, the Government would reimburse him. Commodities did not suddenly shift from 'seller' to 'holder' upon imposition of controls in 1941; while it reduced its total stocks between 1938 and 1941, the Court of Claims found that it was essentially a 'holder' from 1933 on. Nor did Commodities make substantial sales to private persons at the ceiling price, and hold out against the Government. It merely exercised its statutory right to refuse to sell, a decision ethically justified if by selling it would incur an honest loss.

IV. The error of the Court of Claims in applying the doctrine of 'retention value' requires reversal of its judgment. That court should reexamine Commodities' costs and if, under a fair accounting theory, those costs prove to be higher than ceiling, they should be considered in the computation of just compensation.


^1  Emergency Price Control Act § 2(a), 56 Stat. 24, 50 U.S.C.Appendix, § 902(a), 50 U.S.C.A. Appendix, § 902(a).

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).