Proprietors of Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren Bridge (1837)

US Constitutional Law

Charles River Bridge
‘City Scape (From Across the Charles River, Boston)’ by Frederick Kubitz

The suggestion of implied terms and the dutiful exercise of police powers, lie central to a case involving contracting parties whose pecuniary expectations lay in direct conflict with the need to serve the public interest, and who in turn held any notion of progress unconstitutional to the last.

Having been granted an Act of incorporation by the State for the purposes of constructing a bridge over the Charles River, Massachusetts in 1785, the plaintiffs in error were required to exact a toll on those travelling the bridge for a period not longer than forty years, while in 1792 the legislature extended the toll agreement by a further thirty years on the proviso that the bridge would then become the property of the State, and the tolls would cease, to which the plaintiffs in error acquiesced and undertook their prescribed duties without complaint or failure.

However in 1828, the State commissioned the defendants in error to build another bridge some 800 metres downriver, while on that occasion assuming full title some six years after its opening and application of a similar toll, upon which the plaintiffs in error quickly filed an injunctive suit in the Massachusetts Supreme Court on grounds that the planned construction of the second bridge was a breach of contract between the legislature and themselves, and was therefore violative of art. 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which reads in relevant part that:

“No State shall….pass any Bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.…”

In the first instance the court dismissed the suit, and so the matter was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court under writ of error, whereupon the Court took the opportunity to review the argument and the facts at hand, while the plaintiffs in error fundamentally argued that when agreeing to commission the erection of the second bridge the State had by implication, retroactively controverted their express agreement to allow the plaintiffs in error a continued right to revenue and profit for the full seventy years.

Here the Court turned first to Satterlee v. Mathewson, in which it held that:

“[R]etrospective laws which do not impair the obligation of contracts, or partake of the character of ex post facto laws, are not condemned or forbidden….”

And that:

“There is nothing in the constitution of the United States, which forbids the legislature of a State to exercise judicial functions.”

While the Court further noted how in Watson v. Mercer it had held that:

“The constitution of the United States does not prohibit the states from passing retrospective laws generally; but only ex post facto laws.”

And so the Court reasoned that while the agreement between the State and the plaintiffs in error was one binding upon both parties, there was no single mention of any right to charge tolls, and so when the original Act expired, so too did the privilege to incur costs upon the community, while the Court also noted that the argument was one based solely upon implied rights alone, and how there was simply no written evidence upon which to bring a claim, while also referring to Providence Bank v. Billings, wherein it had held that:

“[T]he constitutionality of a measure depends, not on the degree of its exercise, but on its principle.”

And so on this occasion the plan and agreement to build the first bridge was by all rights fulfilled, therefore when allowing for population and socio-economic changes faced, it was nothing less than prudent governance to erect another bridge that allowed for free travel to the benefit of those using it, thus the legislature were merely exercising their police powers in the interests of its people, whereupon the Court upheld the Massachusetts Supreme Court judgment in full, while holding that:

“[A] state law may be retrospective in its character, and may divest vested rights, and yet not violate the constitution of the United States, unless it also impairs the obligation of a contract.”

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Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Legal Consultant, Author and Foodie...

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