209 US 349 Hudson County Water Company v. Robert H McCarter

209 U.S. 349

28 S.Ct. 529

52 L.Ed. 828

ROBERT H. McCARTER, Attorney General of the State of New Jersey.

No. 184.

Argued March 18, 19, 1908.

Decided April 6, 1908.

Messrs. Gilbert Collins and Richard V. Lindabury for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 350-351 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Robert H. McCarter for defendant in error.

[Argument of Counsel from Page 352 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

view counter

This is an information alleging that the defendant (the plaintiff in error), under a contract with the city of Bayonne, in New Jersey, has laid mains in that city for the purpose of carrying water to Staten island, in the state of New York. By other contracts it is to get the water from the Passaic river, at Little Falls, where the East Jersey Water Company has a large plant by which the water is withdrawn. On May 11, 1905, the state of New Jersey, reciting the need of preserving the fresh water of the state for the health and prosperity of the citizens, enacted that 'it shall be unlawful for any person or corporation to transport or carry, through pipes, conduits, ditches, or canals, the waters of any fresh water lake, pond, brook, creek, river, or stream of this state into any other state, for use therein.' By a second section a proceeding like the present was authorized, in order enforce the act. Laws of 1905, chap. 238, p. 461. After the passage of this statute the defendant made a contract with the city of New York to furnish a supply of water adequate for the borough of Richmond, and of not less than 3,000,000 gallons a day. Thereupon this information was brought, praying that, pursuant to the above act and otherwise, the defendant might be enjoined from carrying the waters of the Passaic river out of the state. There are allegations as to the amount of water and the probable future demand, upon which the parties are not wholly agreed, but the essential facts are not denied. The defendant sets up that the statute, if applicable to it, is contrary to the Constitution of the United States, that it impairs the obligation of contracts, takes property without due process of law, interferes with commerce between New Jersey and New York, denies the privileges of citizens of New Jersey to citizens of other states, and denies to them the equal protection of the laws. An injunction was issued by the chancellor (70 N. J. Eq. 525, 61 Atl. 710), the decree was affirmed by the court of errors and appeals (70 N. J. Eq. 695, 65 Atl. 489), and the case then was brought here.


The court below assumed or decided, and we shall assume, that the defendant represents the rights of a riparian proprietor; and, on the other hand, that it represents no special chartered powers that give it greater rights than those. On these assumptions the court of errors and appeals pointed out that a riparian proprietor has no right to divert waters for more than a reasonable distance from the body of the stream or for other than the well-known ordinary uses, and that for any purpose anywhere he is narrowly limited in amount. It went on to infer that his only right in the body of the stream is to have the flow continue, and that there is a residuum of public ownership in the state. It reinforced the state's rights by the state's title to the bed of the stream where flowed by the tide, and concluded from the foregoing and other considerations that, as against the rights of riparian owners merely as such, the state was warranted in prohibiting the acquisition of the title to water on a larger scale.


We will not say that the considerations that we have stated do not warrant the conclusion reached; and we shall not attempt to revise the opinion of the local court upon the local law, if, for the purpose of decision, we accept the argument of the plaintiff in error that it is open to revision when constitutional rights are set up. Neither shall we consider whether such a state as the one before us might not be up held, even if the lower riparian proprietors collectively were the absolute owners of the stream, on the ground that it authorized a suit by the state in their interest, where it does not appear that they all have released their rights. See Kansas v. Colorado, 185 U. S. 125, 142, 46 L. ed. 838, 844, 22 Sup. Ct. Rep. 552. But we prefer to put the authority, which cannot be denied to the state, upon a broader ground than that which was emphasized below, since, in our opinion, it is independent of the more or less attenuated residuum of title that the state may be said to possess.


All rights tend to declare themselves absolute to their logical extreme. Yet all in fact are limited by the neighborhood of principles of policy which are other than those on which the particular right is founded, and which become strong enough to hold their own when a certain point is reached. The limits set to property by other public interests present themselves as a branch of what is called the police power of the state. The boundary at which the conflicting interests balance cannot be determined by any general formula in advance, but points in the line, or helping to establish it, are fixed by decisions that this or that concrete case falls on the nearer or farther side. For instance, the police power may limit the height of buildings in a city, without compensation. To that extent it cuts down what otherwise would be the rights of property. But if it should attempt to limit the height so far as to make an ordinary building lot wholly useless, the rights of property would prevail over the other public interest, and the police power would fail. To set such a limit would need compensation and the power of eminent domain.


It sometimes is difficult to fix boundary stones between the private right of property and the police power when, as in the case at bar, we know of few decisions that are very much in point. But it is recognized that the state, as quasi-sovereign and representative of the interests of the public, has a standing in court to protect the atmosphere, the water, and the forests within its territory, irrespective of the assent or dissent of the private owners of the land most immediately concerned. Kansas v. Colorado, 185 U. S. 125, 141, 142, 46 L. ed. 838, 844, 845, 22 Sup. Ct. Rep. 552, s. c. 206 U. S. 46, 99, 51 L. ed. 956, 975, 27 Sup. Ct. Rep. 655; Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. 206 U. S. 230, 238, 51 L. ed. 1038, 1044, 27 Sup. Ct. Rep. 618. What it may protect by suit in this court from interference in the name of property outside of the state's jurisdiction, one would think that it could protect by statute from interference in the same name within. On this principle of public interest and the police power, and not merely as the inheritor of a royal prerogative, the state may make laws for the preservation of game, which seems a stronger case. Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U. S. 519, 534, 40 L. ed. 793, 798, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 600.


The problems of irrigation have no place here. Leaving them on one side, it appears to us that few public interests are more obvious, indisputable, and independent of particular theory than the interest of the public of a state to maintain the rivers that are wholly within it substantially undiminished, except by such drafts upon them as the guardian of the public welfare may permit for the purpose of turning them to a more perfect use. This public interest is omnipresent wherever there is a state, and grows more pressing as population grows. It is fundamental, and we are of opinion that the private property of riparian proprietors cannot be supposed to have deeper roots. Whether it be said that such an interest justifies the cutting down by statute, without compensation, in the exercise of the police power, of what otherwise would be private rights of property, or that, apart from statute, those rights do not go to the height of what the defendant seeks to do, the result is the same. But we agree with the New Jersey courts, and think it quite beyond any rational view of riparian rights, that an agreement, of no matter what private owners, could sanction the diversion of an important stream outside the boundaries of the state in which it flows. The private right to appropriate is subject not only to the rights of lower owners, but to the initial limitation that it may not substantially diminish one of the great foundations of public welfare and health.


We are of opinion, further, that the constitutional power of the state to insist that its natural advantages shall remain unimpaired by its citizens is not dependent upon any nice estimate of the extent of present use or speculation as to future needs. The legal conception of the necessary is apt to be confined to somewhat rudimentary wants, and there are benefits from a great river that might escape a lawyer's view. But the state is not required to submit even to an aesthetic analysis. Any analysis may be inadequate. It finds itself in possession of what all admit to be a great public good, and what it has it may keep and give no one a reason for its will.

view counter

The defense under the 14th Amendment is disposed of by what we have said. That under article 1, § 10, needs but a few words more. One whose rights, such as they are, are subject to state restriction, cannot remove them from the power of the state by making a contract about them. The contract will carry with it the infirmity of the subject-matter. Knoxville Water Co. v. Knoxville, 189 U. S. 434, 438, 47 L. ed. 887, 892, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 531; Manigault v. Springs, 199 U. S. 473, 480, 50 L. ed. 274, 278, 26 Sup. Ct. Rep. 127. But the contract, the execution of which is sought to be prevented here, was illegal when it was made.


The other defenses also may receive short answers. A man cannot acquire a right to property by his desire to use it in commerce among the states. Neither can he enlarge his otherwise limited and qualified right to the same end. The case is covered in this respect by Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U. S. 519, 40 L. ed. 793, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 600, and the same decision disposes of the argument that the New Jersey law denies equal privileges to the citizens of New York. It constantly is necessary to reconcile and to adjust different constitutional principles, each of which would be entitled to possession of the disputed ground but for the presence of the others, as we already have said that it is necessary to reconcile and to adjust different principles of the common law. See Asbell v. Kansas [209 U. S. 251, 52 L. ed. ——, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 485]. The right to receive water from a river through pipes is subject to territorial limits by nature, and those limits may be fixed by the state within which the river flows, even if they are made to coincide with the state line. Within the boundary, citizens of New York are as free to purchase as citizens of New Jersey. But this question does not concern the defendant, which is a New Jersey corporation. There is nothing else that needs mention. We are of opinion that the decision of the Court of Errors and Appeals was right.


Decree affirmed.


Mr. Justice McKenna dissents.