ERROR to the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia.
The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.
Mr. Fillmore Beall and Mr. O. A. Lochrane for the plaintiffs in error.
Mr. Joel Branham, contra.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE delivered the opinion of the court.
This was a suit in equity brought by Wright and Shorter in [101 U.S. 791, 792] the Superior Court of Floyd County, Georgia, to restrain the defendants from continuing and maintaining a toll-bridge across the Etowah River, at Rome, in that county. The facts are these: In July, 1851, the Inferior Court of Floyd County entered into a contract with one H. V. M. Miller, by which the court, for a good and valuable consideration, granted to Miller and his heirs and assigns for ever, so far as it had authority for that purpose, the exclusive right of opening ferries and building bridges across the Oostanaula and Etowah Rivers, at Rome, within certain specified limits. Miller, on his part, bound himself by certain covenants and agreements appropriate to such a contract. He afterwards assigned his rights under the contract, so that when this suit was commenced the complainants, Wright and Shorter, were the owners. Large amounts of money were expended in building and maintaining the required bridges, and the franchise is a valuable one. In December, 1872, the commissioners of roads and revenue for the county authorized the defendants to erect and maintain a toll-bridge across the Etowah, within the limits of the original grant to Miller. The bill avers that 'the said board of commissioners in the making and conferring of said franchise exercised legislative powers conferred upon it by the laws of the State; that the said grant is in the nature of a statute of the legislature; that the same is an infringement of the said grant and contract made by the said superior (inferior) court to and with the said H. V. M. Miller, under whom compla nants hold, and impairs the obligation and validity thereof, and is repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, art. 1, sect. 10, par. 1, which prohibits a State from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts; and the complainants pray that the said grant to said defendants be by this court annulled and declared void, and the defendants perpetually enjoined from any exercise of the privileges thereby conveyed and granted.'
There is no dispute about the facts, and in the answer it is expressly stated that the commissioners of roads and revenue 'are vested with legislative, or quasi-legislative, powers and exclusive powers on this subject, and, therefore, . . . the order making said bridge and streets public has all the authority, sanction, and effect of an act of the legislature of the State, and [101 U.S. 791, 793] cannot be interfered with by the unauthorized and void act of any public functionary of this State.' The parties, by stipulation before the hearing, eliminated every thing from the case except so much as was necessary to obtain 'a final and legal decision upon the main question; to wit, whether or not the Inferior Court of Floyd County, Georgia, could and did grant to the complainants, or their assignors, an exclusive franchise, such as is set up and claimed in the complainants' bill, and whether or not, therefore, the subsequent grant of the bridge franchise, described in the pleadings, by the said board of commissioners to the defendants, is or is not valid, and the right of complainants to the relief prayed for.' It was also agreed that the defendants had title to the lands on which the piers of the bridge were built.
The Superior Court decided that the inferior court of the county had no power to grant Miller any such exclusive right as was claimed, and for that reason dismissed the bill. This decision was afterwards affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State on appeal, and to reverse that judgment this writ of error was brought.
Accompanying the submission of the case on its merits is a motion to dismiss because no Federal question is involved.
Before proceeding to consider the questions presented by the record, we are called upon to dispose of a preliminary motion. On or before the 6th of December, 1879, the counsel for the respective parties stipulated, in writing, to submit the case on printed arguments under the twentieth rule. The plaintiffs in error ask leave to withdraw their stipulation, and set the cause down for oral argument when reached. We think their showing in support of that motion is insufficient, and that under the rule laid down in Muller v. Dows ( 94 U.S. 277 ) the stipulation must be enforced.
We think, also, that the motion to dismiss must be overruled. It is true, the court below disposed of the case by deciding that the State statutes did not authorize the inferior court to grant Miller an exclusive right to maintain bridges within the designated limits, and that in so doing it gave a construction to a State statute. It is also true that ordinarily such a construction would be conclusive on us. One exception, [101 U.S. 791, 794] however, exists to this rule, and that is when the State court 'has been called upon to interpret the contracts of States, 'though they have been made in the forms of law,' or by the instrumentality of a State's authorized functionaries in conformity with State legislation.' Jefferson Branch Bank v. Skelly, 1 Black, 436. It has been decided in Georgia that the right to receive tolls for the transportation of travellers and others across a river on a public highway is a franchise which belongs to the people collectively. Young v. Harrison, 6 Ga. 130. A grant of this franchise from the public in some form is therefore necessary to enable an individual to establish and maintain a toll-bridge for public travel. The legislature of the State alone has authority to make such a grant. It may exercise this authority by direct legislation, or through agencies duly established, having power for that purpose. The gran when made binds the public, and is, directly or indirectly, the act of the State. The easement is a legislative grant, whether made directly by the legislature itself, or by any one of its properly constituted instrumentalities. Justices of Inferior Court v. Plank Road, 14 id. 486. The complainants claim they have such a grant through the agency of the inferior court, acting under the authority of the legislature. This is denied, because, as is insisted, the legislature has not given the court power to make an exclusive grant. That was the precise question decided below, and under the exception to the rule just stated is reviewable here.
If the court erred in construing the statute, and in holding that there was no contract, then the question is directly presented by the pleadings and the stipulation as to the facts, whether the subsequent action of the commissioners of roads and revenue is, in its legal effect, equivalent to a law of the State impairing the obligation of the contract as it was made. In this way, it seems to us, a Federal question is raised upon the record, which gives us jurisdiction.
We, therefore, proceed to consider whether the inferior court had the power to grant Miller the exclusive right. It certainly has done so, if the power existed. There is no doubt that the legislature, under the Constitution of the State in force at the time, had authority to make such a grant. The only question [101 U.S. 791, 795] is, whether power for that purpose had been delegated to the inferior court.
The statutes relied on by the plaintiffs in error as conferring that authority are:--
An act of Dec. 1, 1805 (Cobb's Dig. 945), as follows:--
An act of Dec. 19, 1818 (Cobb's Dig. 952):--
SECT. 33. The inferior courts shall have power to establish ferries, to rate the toll to be taken, as well those already established as any which may hereafter be established, within the several counties within which they may severally reside; and, generally, all other matters relative to ferries which may, in their judgment, be of public utility, any law to the contrary notwithstanding.'
An act of Dec. 26, 1845 (Cobb's Dig. 958):--
Upon the whole, it seems to us that the Supreme Court of the State was right in its decision, and the judgment is therefore