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June 2, 1902



Fuller, Harlan, Gray, Brewer, Brown, shiras, Jr., White, Peckham, McKenna


[ 186 U.S. Page 405]

 MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

The plaintiff in error claims that, under the city ordinance, it has a valid contract for the exclusive use of the streets of the city of Tallahassee for the purpose of furnishing both gas and electric light, and that the subsequent acts of the legislature, providing for the erection and operation by the city of an

[ 186 U.S. Page 406]

     electric light plant, impair the obligation of its contract, and are therefore void.

As the case involves the provision of the Federal Constitution, which prohibits the States from passing any law impairing the obligation of a contract, and as the state court has given effect to subsequent legislation, which, it is claimed, results in the impairment of the obligation of plaintiff's contract with the city, we are bound to determine for ourselves as to the existence and meaning of the alleged contract, in order to determine the question whether subsequent legislation has impaired the obligation thereof.

Plaintiff in error claims the exclusive right to use the streets and furnish both gas and electric lights by virtue of section 11 of the ordinance of the city council, referred to in the foregoing statement of facts, and by virtue of the provisions of section 38 of the general corporation act of August 8, 1868. We concur in substance in the opinion of the state court of Florida, 28 South. Rep. 813, wherein it stated as follows:

"A careful reading of the ordinance passed in 1888 will show that the city is under no obligation whatever to the appellant or its predecessor company to light the streets and public buildings of the city with either gas or electricity manufactured by said companies. Nothing is said in the ordinance about lighting the streets or public buildings with electricity manufactured by the company. In respect to gas, the city was not required to use any at all, but it obligated itself to take all gas that it might wish to use in lighting its streets and buildings from the company at prices not to exceed the amounts named for a certain term of years. There is no contract, therefore, between the city and the company that the latter shall have the right to furnish the city for lighting its streets and public buildings, all or any, by electricity used for the purpose, nor is there any stipulation in the ordinance that the city will use nothing but gas, nor that the city will not own or operate an electric light plant for supplying the city and its inhabitants with light. If the city is debarred from erecting an electric light plant by the ordinance passed by it, it is because that ordinance legally grants the company the exclusive privilege and license to use

[ 186 U.S. Page 407]

     the streets, alleys and lots of the city for the purpose of constructing and operating a plant and its instrumentalities for furnishing electric lights in the city."

The general law of Florida for the incorporation of municipal corporations, passed August 6, 1868, while empowering a city to provide for lighting its streets, and giving to it the power to regulate and control the use of its public streets, gives the city no power to grant an exclusive use of its streets to any person or corporation for the purpose of lighting the city or for providing light to its citizens. The power to obtain such exclusive use of the streets of the city, if not granted by the municipal corporation act of 1868, is said to be found in the general act passed August 8, 1868, or two days subsequently to the above act, and known as chapter 1639 of the Laws of Florida, providing for the incorporation of corporations other than those of a municipal character. Section 38 of such act reads as follows:

"Any corporation organized and put into successful operation under this act shall have exclusive privileges for the purposes of its creation for the term of twenty years from the date the corporation commences to carry out in good faith the terms of its articles of incorporation: Provided, however, That this investment shall not so operate as to divest any future legislature of those powers of government which are inherent and essential attributes of sovereignty, to wit: the power to create revenue for public purposes, to provide for the common defence, ...

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