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decided: May 27, 1907.



Author: Moody

[ 206 U.S. Page 541]

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

The acts of the defendant for which the plaintiff sought a remedy in the courts of New York may be simply stated. The plaintiff owned land with buildings thereon situated at the junction of One Hundred and Fifty-fifth street and Eighth avenue, two public highways, in which the fee was vested in the city upon the trust that they should be forever kept open as public streets. As One Hundred and Fifty-fifth street was graded at the time the plaintiff acquired his title, it was isolated to a considerable extent from the street system of the city. Its west end ran into a high and practically impassable bluff, which rendered further progress in that direction impossible. The east end ran to the bank of the Harlem River at a grade which rendered access to McComb's Dam Bridge, which crossed the river at that point, impossible. Under legislative authority the city constructed, solely for public travel, a viaduct over One Hundred and Fifty-fifth street, beginning at

[ 206 U.S. Page 542]

     the bridge and thence running with gradual ascent to the top of the bluff. This viaduct enabled travellers to use One Hundred and Fifty-fifth street, in connection with other streets of the city, from which it had previously been disconnected. The viaduct rested upon columns planted in the street, and they, and the viaduct itself, to a material extent impaired the plaintiff's access to his land and the free admission to it of light and air. The plaintiff, in his complaint, alleged that this structure was unlawful, because the law under which it was constructed did not provide for compensation for the injury to his private property in the easements of access, light, and air, appurtenant to his estate. The Court of Appeals denied the plaintiff the relief which he sought, upon the ground that under the law of New York he had no easements of access, light, or air, as against any improvement of the street for the purpose of adapting it to public travel. In other words, the court in effect decided that the property alleged to have been injured did not exist. The reasons upon which the decision of that court proceeded will appear by quotations from the opinion of the court, delivered by Judge Haight. Judge Haight said (p. 30):

"The fee of the street having been acquired according to the provisions of the statute, we must assume that full compensation was made to the owners of the lands through which the streets and avenues were laid out, and that thereafter the owners of land abutting thereon hold their title subject to all the legitimate and proper uses to which the streets and public highways may be devoted. As such owners they are subject to the right of the public to grade and improve the streets, and they are presumed to have been compensated for any future improvement or change in the surface or grade rendered necessary for the convenience of public travel, especially in cities where the growth of population increases the use of highways. The rule may be different as to peculiar and extraordinary changes made for some ulterior purpose other than the improvement of the street, as, for instance,

[ 206 U.S. Page 543]

     where the natural surface has been changed by artificial means, such as the construction of a railroad embankment, or a bridge over a railroad, making elevated approaches necessary. But as to changes from the natural contour of the surface rendered necessary in order to adapt the street to the free and easy passage of the public, they may be lawfully made without additional compensation to the abutting owners, and for that purpose bridges may be constructed over streams and viaducts over ravines, with approaches thereto from intersecting streets. . . (p. 33). In the case under consideration as we have seen, One Hundred and Fifty-fifth street continued west to Bradhurst avenue. There it met a steep bluff seventy feet high, on the top of which was St. Nicholas place. The title of the street up the bluff had been acquired and recorded, but it had never been opened and worked as a street. The bluff was the natural contour of the surface, and for the purpose of facilitating easy and safe travel of the public from St. Nicholas place to other portions of the city the legislature authorized the construction of the viaduct in question. It is devoted to ordinary traffic by teams, vehicles and pedestrians. It is prohibited for railroad purposes. It is one of the uses to which public highways are primarily opened and devoted. It was constructed under legislative authority in the exercise of governmental powers for a public purpose. It is not, therefore, a nuisance, and the plaintiff is not entitled to have its maintenance enjoined or to recover in this action the consequential damages sustained."

The plaintiff now contends that the judgment afterwards rendered by the Supreme Court of New York, in conformity with the opinion of the Court of Appeals, denied rights secured to him by the Federal Constitution. This contention presents the only question for our determination, and the correctness of the principles of local land law applied by the state courts is not open to inquiry here, unless it has some bearing upon that question. But it may not be inappropriate to say that the decision of the Court of Appeals seems to be in full accord

[ 206 U.S. Page 544]

     with the decisions of all other courts in which the same question has arisen. The state courts have uniformly held that the erection over a street of an elevated viaduct, intended for general public travel and not devoted to the exclusive use of a private transportation corporation, is a legitimate street improvement equivalent to a change of grade; and that, as in the case of a change of grade, an owner of land abutting on the street is not entitled to damages for the impairment of access to his land and the lessening of the circulation of light and air over it. Selden v. Jacksonville, 28 Florida, 558; Willis v. Winona, 59 Minnesota, 27; Colclough v. Milwaukee, 92 Wisconsin, 182; Walish v. Milwaukee, 95 Wisconsin, 16; Home Building Company v. Roanoke, 91 Virginia, 52 (cited with apparent approval by this court in Meyer v. Richmond, 172 U.S. 82, 95); Willetts Manufacturing Co. v. Mercer County, 62 N.J. Law, 95; Brand v. Multnomah County, 38 Oregon, 79; Mead v. Portland, 45 Oregon, 1, affirmed by this court in 200 U.S. 148; Sears v. Crocker, 184 Massachusetts, 586; (Semble) DeLucca v. North Little Rock, 142 Fed. Rep. 597.

The case of Willis v. Winona, supra is singularly like the case at bar in its essential facts. There, as here, a viaduct was constructed, connecting by a gradual ascent the level of a public street with the level of a public bridge across the Mississippi. An owner of land abutting on the street over which the viaduct was elevated was denied compensation for his injuries, Mr. Justice Mitchell saying (p. 33):

"The bridge is just as much a public highway as is Main street, with which it connects; and, whether we consider the approach as a part of the former or of the latter, it is merely a part of the highway. The city having, as it was authorized to do, established a new highway across the Mississippi, it was necessary to connect it, for purposes of travel, with Main and the other streets of the city. This it has done, in the only way it could have been done, by what, in effect, amounts merely to raising the grade of the centre of Main street in from of the plaintiff's lot. It can make no difference in principle

[ 206 U.S. Page 545]

     whether this was done by filling up the street solidly, or, as in this case, by supporting the way on stone or iron columns. Neither is it important if the city raise the grade of only a part of the street, leaving the remainder at a lower grade. . . .

"The doctrine of the courts everywhere, both in England and in this country (unless Ohio and Kentucky are excepted), is that so long as there is no application of the street to purposes other than those of a highway, any establishment or change of grade made lawfully, and not negligently performed, does not impose an additional servitude upon the street, and hence is not within the constitutional inhibition against taking private property without compensation, and is not the basis of an action for damages, unless there be an express statute to that effect. That this is the rule, and that the facts of this case will fall within it, is too well established by the decisions of this court to require the citation of authorities of other jurisdictions. . . .

"The New York Elevated Railway cases cited by plaintiff are not authority in his favor, for they recognize and affirm the very doctrine that we have laid down, Story v. New York Elevated R.R. Co., 90 N.Y. 122, but hold that the construction and maintenance on the street of an elevated railroad operated by steam, and which was not open to the public for purposes of travel and traffic, was a perversion of the street from street uses, and imposed upon it an additional servitude, which entitled abutting owners to damages."

The cases cited usually recognized the authority of the New York Elevated cases, hereinafter to be discussed, and approved the distinction from them made by Mr. Justice Mitchell.

But, as has been said, we are not concerned primarily with the correctness of the rule adopted by the Court of Appeals of New York and its conformity with authority. This court does not hold the relation to the controversy between these parties which the Court of Appeals of New York had. It was

[ 206 U.S. Page 546]

     the duty of that court to ascertain, declare and apply the law of New York, and its determination of that law is conclusive upon this court. This court is not made, by the laws passed in pursuance of the Constitution, a court of appeal from the highest courts of the States, except to a very limited extent, and for a precisely defined purpose. The limitation upon the power of this court in the review of the decisions of the courts of the States, though elementary and fundamental, is not infrequently overlooked at the Bar, and unless it is kept steadily in mind much confusion of thought and argument result. It seems worth while to refer to the provisions of the Constitution and laws which mark and define the relation of this court to the courts of the State. Article III of the Constitution ordains, among other things, that "the judicial power shall extend to all cases in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority," and that the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court shall be exercised under such regulations as Congress shall make.

It was from this provision of the Constitution that Marshall in Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, derived the power of this court to review the judgments of the courts of the States, and, in defining the appellate jurisdiction, the Chief Justice expressly limited it to questions concerning the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States, commonly called Federal questions, and excluded altogether the thought that under the Congressional regulation the jurisdiction included any power to correct any supposed errors of the state courts in the determination of the state law. Such was the expressed limitation of the original judiciary act, in its present form found in section 709 of the Revised Statutes, which has been observed by this court in so many cases that the citation of them would be an idle parade. It is ...

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