Mechling Barge Lines, Inc. v. United States (368 U.S. 324)/Dissent Clark

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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

368 U.S. 324

Mechling Barge Lines, Inc.  v.  United States

 Argued: Nov. 8 and 9, 1961. --- Decided: Dec 18, 1961

Mr. Justice CLARK, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice DOUGLAS join, dissenting.

Believing that an actual controversy still exists in this case, I cannot agree that it is moot. In my opinion, the events occurring subsequent to the filing of this suit have not negated the necessity for a decision on the issues raised by the complaint, and I would vacate the dismissal of the three-judge District Court and remand the case to it with instructions to pass on these issues.

The complaint filed by appellant barge lines sought to set aside, for lack of statutorily required findings, a temporary order of the Commission permitting certain railroads to impose higher tariffs for the transportation of grain 'for a shorter than for a longer distance over the same line or route.' The complaint also asked for a declaration that it was unlawful under the Act for the Commission and the railroads to engage in a practice whereby such illegal temporary orders in a continuous series were utilized to by-pass the long- and short-haul provisions of § 4(1) of the Act. The railroads in question intervened in the case shortly after the complaint was filed. The issues raised by the complaint are twofold: (1) the validity of the temporary order, and (2) the validity of the alleged continuing practice used against appellants.

The three-judge District Court thought that the elimination by the railroads of the long-haul short-haul discrimination, accompanied by the withdrawal of the application which had sought permission for such discrimination, left the decision as to the validity of the temporary order a meaningless issue. This overlooks the fact that the validity of this order is still an actual controversy between the appellants and the intervening railroads. Neither the concession of invalidity by the Commission nor the vacation of the order pursuant to the Court's opinion is determinative of the order's validity. Upon the determination of this issue rests the ability of the appellants to collect damages occasioned by the tariffs used by the railroads pursuant to the temporary order, assuming that a plausible theory of liability exists (a question which I need not now decide). For authority indicating that the validity issue is saved from mootness by the possibility that the order may 'be the basis of further proceedings,' see Southern Pacific Terminal Co. v. Interstate Commerce Comm., 219 U.S. 498, 515, 31 S.Ct. 279, 283, 55 L.Ed. 310 (1911). Moreover, I note the fact that appellants would not be barred from challenging the order in a later suit-the point relied upon by the majority in affirming-does not render the issue moot in this case.

If the only need for a decision on the validity of this temporary order were to aid a suit for damages which might possibly be brought, I might not formally take issue with the decision below and its affirmance by my Brethren. However, because of the second issue raised by the complaint, [1] i.e., an alleged circumvention of the Act by the utilization of a continuous stream of such temporary orders, the validity of this order, as well as the practice which gave birth to it, is presently disputed in this very case.

The continuing practice of which the appellants complain consists of an application by the railroads for an order permitting the imposition of a lower tariff for a long-haul than is charged for a short-haul over the same line; the issuance by the Commission of a temporary order without the necessary findings required by § 4(1); the maintenance of such temporary order as long as possible by delaying the final disposition of the application; and the withdrawal or vacation of such order whenever a judicial test of its validity appears imminent, thereby frustrating any review on the ground of mootness. It is claimed that by continually repeating this process the railroads and the Commission have kept in effect an illegal tariff for transportation by rail to the damage of the competing barge lines.

The lower court, although recognizing that the continuing practice issue was before it, felt that this question did not present a justiciable controversy. The opinion of the Court affirms this result by saying that regardless of whether this question presents an actual controversy, it is sound judicial discretion to withhold any relief because the Commission has renounced before this Court the challenged practice. It appears that the Court has placed itself in the dubious position of upholding a discretion that was never exercised on a ground that was never presented. I am mystified by the tactic which in effect exercises a discretion committed initially to the trial court in order to avoid deciding 'possibly difficult questions' properly before this Court.

In my view the complaint as interpreted and applied by the court below raises an actual controversy as to the validity of the alleged practice. [2] Even though there is a controversy, the court below in the exercise of its discretion might decide that no relief, either injunctive or declaratory, is called for; however, I do not feel that the intervening partial repentance by the Commission compels the lower court to refuse relief. Rather I would think that the Commission's representation is only one fact to be considered along with all the other circumstances which appellants' affidavits indicate they would show if afforded the opportunity. [3] Furthermore, the court below might take note of preceding cases which indicate that the railroads have played hanky-panky with their rates for years in an effort to attract freight away from the waterways. [4]

To sum up, at the time this case was dismissed as moot there was a charge that the Commission and the railroad intervenors were following a practice of using illegal 'temporary' orders to frustrate the purpose of Congress to have the Act 'so administered as to recognize and preserve the inherent advantages' of 'all modes of transportation subject (thereto) * * *.' Based on this practice the appellants prayed that the temporary orders and the continuous practice be declared illegal and enjoined and for other appropriate relief. Under the record here presented, I am convinced that there is a controversy which if heard could be amenable to judicial relief. I would vacate the dismissal and remand the case to the court below for its consideration of the issues raised and for its decision thereon, including whether, in the exercise of its discretion, any injunctive or declarative relief is called for; and with the further instruction, in accordance with the practice utilized in Bryan v. Austin, 354 U.S. 933, 77 S.Ct. 1396, 1 L.Ed.2d 1527 (1957), that upon appellants' request they be granted leave to amend their pleadings to meet the changed condition of the case as brought about by the Commission's intervening concession that its order was void, as well as its renouncement of the challenged practice. Indeed, some of our cases indicate that if appellants at that time chose to assert their cause of action for damages, that too might be included in such amendment, in which event that claim would be heard by a single judge of the three-judge court. Compare Bryan v. Austin, supra; Public Service Commission of State of Missouri v. Brashear Freight Lines, 312 U.S. 621, 61 S.Ct. 784, 85 L.Ed. 1083 (1941).


^1  It could be argued that even if the continuing practice was not an issue in the case, its existence could be considered in determining whether the case is moot. See Southern Pacific Terminal Co. v. Interstate Commerce Comm., 219 U.S. 498, 31 S.Ct. 279, 55 L.Ed. 310 (1911).

^2  Analysis of the complaint reveals that appellants alleged the Commission 'still follows the practice of entering such orders without supporting findings.' It was requested that 'the absence of any power and authority in the Commission to enter temporary fourth-section orders prior to a hearing, and to enter them without supporting findings, be definitely established.' Also, appellants noted that the validity of the Commission's temporary order might become moot by the entry of a final order, 'just as other cases in which similar relief has been sought have become moot before the issues could be determined by the Supreme Court.'

^3  Such other factors would include evidence that, in 1958 1959 alone, the water carriers had protested eight other separate and distinct § 4 relief applications in which temporary orders similar to that involved here were sought and obtained; that in over a year only one of these applications had been formally acted upon by the Commission; that two of these applications were withdrawn in the face of pending tests; that five of these applications are still awaiting final decision before the Commission with temporary orders having been in effect for over one and a half years; that these temporary rates were avowedly designed by the railroads to divert freight from the water carriers; and that as a result the water carriers lost thousands of tons of grain shipments per year.

^4  Interstate Commerce Commission v. Mechling, 330 U.S. 567, 67 S.Ct. 894, 91 L.Ed. 1102 (1947); Interstate Commerce Commission v. Inland Waterways Corp., 319 U.S. 671, 692-703, 63 S.Ct. 1296, 1307-1313, 87 L.Ed. 1655 (dissenting opinion) (1943). Also see cases cited note 13 of the Court's opinion.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).