Rehearing Denied Jan. 20, 1941
[311 U.S. 377, 379] Robert H. Jackson, Atty. Gen., and Francis B. Biddle, Sol. Gen., for petitioner.
[311 U.S. 377, 386] Messrs. Raymond T. Jackson, of Cleveland, Ohio, and Hugo Kohlmann, of New York City, for respondent.
[311 U.S. 377, 394] Abram P. Staples, Atty. Gen., of Virginia, for Commonwealth of Virginia as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.
Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case involves the scope of the federal commerce power in relation to conditions in licenses, required by the Federal Power Commission, for the construction of hydroelectric dams in navigable rivers of the United States. To reach this issue requires, preliminarily, a decision as to the navigability of the New River, a watercourse flowing through Virginia and West Virginia. The district court and the circuit court of appeals have both held that the New River is not navigable, and that the United States cannot enjoin the respondent from constructing and putting into operation a hydroelectric dam situated in the river just above Radford, Virginia.
Sections 9 and 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 make it unlawful to construct a dam in any navigable water of the United States without the consent of Congress. 1 By the Federal Water Power Act of 1920,2 [311 U.S. 377, 399] however, Congress created a Federal Power Commission with authority to license the construction of such dams upon specified conditions. Section 23 of that Act provided that persons intending to construct a dam in a nonnavigable stream may file a declaration of intention with the Commission. If after investigation the Commission finds that the interests of interstate or foreign commerce will not be affected, permission shall be granted for the construction. Otherwise construction cannot go forward without a license.
The Radford Dam project was initiated by respondent's predecessor, the New River Development Company, which filed its declaration of intention with the Federal Power Commission on June 25, 1925. The Commission requested a report from General Harry Taylor, then Chief of Engineers of the War Department. He first reported that the river was navigable, and also that while the water flow from the dam, if not properly regulated, could have an adverse effect on navigation during low water stages in the Kanawha River (of which the New was one of the principal tributaries), such possible adverse effect would not warrant refusing a license to construct the dam if control was maintained by the United States. On review at the Commission's request, however, General Taylor rendered a second report, concluding that the New River in its present condition was not navigable and that navigation on the Kanawha would not be adversely affected by the proposed power development. On March 2, 1926, the Commission held a hearing on the declaration; the only evidence then submitted was General Taylor's second report.
Respondent, the Appalachian Electric Power Company, took an assignment of the declaration of intention on August 30, 1926, and several days later filed an application for a license on the Commission's suggestion that this would expedite matters and could be withdrawn if it later developed that no federal license was required. [311 U.S. 377, 400] In October, the district engineer of the War Department held a public hearing at Radford. On June 1, 1927, the Commission made a finding that the New River was not 'navigable waters' within the definition in section 3 of the Federal Water Power Act of 1920 but that (under section 23 of the Act) the project would affect the interests of interstate and foreign commerce. On July 1, 1927, the Commission tendered to respondent a standard form license which the respondent refused in April, 1928, principally on the ground that the conditions-especially those concerning rates, accounts and eventual acquisition-were unrelated to navigation. In February, 1930, respondent reiterated that its project was not within the Commission's jurisdiction, but nevertheless offered to accept a 'minor- part' license3 containing only such conditions as would protect the interests of the United States in navigation. In September, 1930, Attorney General Mitchell advised the Commission that it could properly issue such a minor-part license;4 the question submitted by the Commission had stated that the New River was neither navigated nor navigable in fact. On November 25, the Commission 'declined to take action on the application favorable or adverse,' on the ground that a court adjudication was desirable. After the establishment of the Commission as an independent agency,5 it held another hearing in February, 1931; in April it denied the application for a minor-part license, directed that the respondent be tendered a standard form license under the Act, and ordered it not to proceed without such a license. A minority of the Commission then [311 U.S. 377, 401] favored a finding that the New River was navigable; the majority, however, thought that question was for the courts and that the Commission's jurisdiction was properly based upon section 23 of the Federal Water Power Act.
On June 8, 1931, the respondent brought an action against the Commission to remove a cloud on its title and to restrain interference with the use of its property. This case was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons. 6 While it was pending, on October 12, 1932, the Commission without notice adopted a resolution that the New River, from the mouth of Wilson Creek, Virginia, north, was navigable.
The respondent began construction work on the dam about June 1, 1934. On May 6, 1935, the United States filed this bill for an injunction against the construction or maintenance of the proposed dam otherwise than under a license from the Federal Power Commission, and in the alternative a mandatory order of removal. It alleged that the New River is navigable; that the dam would constitute an obstruction to navigation and would impair the navigable capacity of the navigable waters of the United States on the New, Kanawha and Ohio Rivers; that the Commission had found the dam would affect the interests of interstate or foreign commerce; and that its construction therefore violated both the Rivers and Harbors Act and the Federal Water Power Act. Respondent denied these allegations, and also set forth a number of separate defenses based on the assumption that the New River was nonnavigable. The fortieth and forty-first paragrahs of the answer, however, set forth defenses relied on by the respondent even if the river were held navigable. The substance of these was (1) that the conditions of any federal license must [311 U.S. 377, 402] be strictly limited to the protection of the navigable capacity of the waters of the United States; and (2) that the Commission's refusal to grant the minor-part license containing only such conditions was unlawful, and that any relief should be conditioned upon the Commission's granting respondent such a license. By these defenses respondent put in question-in the event of an adverse holding on navigability-the validity of the conditions of the Act carried over into the standard form license which relate to accounts, control of operation and eventual acquisition of the project at the expiration of the license.
After trial, in an opinion reinforced by formal findings of fact and law, the district court decided that the New River is not a navigable water of the United States; that respondent's dam would not obstruct the navigable capacity of the Kanawha or any other navigable river, and would not affect the interests of interstate commerce; that the Power Commission's findings on these matters were not final but subject to the determination of the courts;7 that the Federal Water Power Act did not vest in the Commission authority to require a license in a nonnavigable river; that even if the Commission had authority to require some license for a dam in nonnavigable waters, it could not impose conditions having no relation to the protection of the navigable capacity of waters of the United States; and that its effort to impose upon respondent a license containing unlawful conditions barred the United States from relief. The district judge therefore dismissed the bill, but left it open [311 U.S. 377, 403] to the Government to assert its rights if future operation of the project interfered with the navigable capacity of the waters of the United States. The circuit court of appeals, with one judge dissenting, affirmed. We granted certiorari.