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Western Union Tel. Co. v. Poston

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued October 20, 1920 ; June 6, 1921

No. 293

Opinion

 [*663]   [**598]   [***1160]  MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the court.

 The Supreme Court of South Carolina (107 S.E. Rep. 516) affirmed a judgment of the trial court against the Western Union Telegraph Company for damages resulting from negligent delay in delivering an intrastate message sent October 2, 1918. Its telegraph system was at that time in the exclusive possession and control of the Government and was being operated by the Postmaster General pursuant to the [****3]  joint resolution of Congress of July 16, 1918, c. 154, 40 Stat. 904, and the proclamation of the President of July 22, 1918, 40 Stat. 1807. The state court declared that, while the action and the judgment recovered therein  [***1161]  were in form against the Western Union Telegraph Company, yet, in effect, they were against the Postmaster General; that in suing the company the plaintiff had pursued the course directed by the President's proclamation and confirmed by the contract dated October 9, 1918 between the Postmaster General and company concerning compensation; and that since under this contract the Postmaster General would have to pay any judgment rendered against the company, the entry of judgment would not deprive it of property without due process of law. This court granted a writ of certiorari; 253 U.S. 480. Whether the company can be held liable is the only question presented here.

Our decision must depend primarily upon the authority conferred by Congress in ] the joint resolution which provided:

 [*664]  "That the President during the continuance of the present war is authorized and empowered,  [**599]  whenever he shall deem it necessary for the national security [****4]  or defense, to supervise or to take possession and assume control of any telegraph, telephone, marine cable, or radio system or systems, or any part thereof, and to operate the same in such manner as may be needful or desirable for the duration of the war . . . Provided, That just compensation shall be made for such supervision, possession, control, or operation, to be determined by the President."

Under this resolution the President might, doubtless, have limited his function to mere supervision of the telegraph and telephone systems leaving them in the possession and under the control of the companies. But the resolution also empowered him "to take possession and assume control" of the systems; and this he did, ( Dakota Central Telephone Co. v. South Dakota, 250 U.S. 163, 183, 185) ] the proclamation declaring:

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256 U.S. 662 *; 41 S. Ct. 598 **; 65 L. Ed. 1157 ***; 1921 U.S. LEXIS 1552 ****

WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY v. POSTON

Prior History:  [****1]  CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

CORE TERMS

telegraph, telephone, federal control, proclamation, take possession, supervision, Railroads

Constitutional Law, Congressional Duties & Powers, War Powers Clause, Governments, Federal Government, Domestic Security, Executive Offices, Property, Administrative Law, Sovereign Immunity, The Judiciary, Jurisdiction, General Overview, Courts, Courts of Claims