IN RE DEBS, 158 U.S. 564 (1895)

158 U.S. 564

In re DEBS et al.
No. 11.

May 27, 1895. On July 2, 1894, the United States, by Thomas E. Milchrist, district attorney for the Northern district of Illinois, under the direction of Richard Olney, attorney general, filed their bill of complaint in the circuit court of the United States for the Northern district of Illinois against these petitioners and others. This bill set forth, among other things, the following facts: It named 22 railroad companies, and it alleged that they were engaged in the business of interstate commerce, and subject to the provisions of the act of congress of February 4, 1887, known as the 'Interstate Commerce Act,' and all other laws of the United States relating to interstate transportation of passengers and freight; that the number of passengers annually carried by them into the city of Chicago from other states than Illinois, and out of Chicago into other states than Illinois, was more than 12,000,000, and in like manner that the freight so carried into and out of the city of Chicago, from and into other states than Illinois, amounted to many millions of tons; that each of the roads was under contract to carry, and in fact carrying, the mails of the United States; that all were by statute declared post roads of the government; that many were by special acts of congress required, at any and all times, to carry the troops and military forces of the United States, and provisions, munitions, and general supplies therefor; and that two of them were in the hands of receivers appointed by the courts of the United States. It stated at some length the necessity of the continued and uninterrupted running of such interstate railroads for the bringing into the city of Chicago supplies for its citizens and for the carrying on of the varied industries of that city.

The bill further averred that four of the defendants, naming them, were officers of an association known as the 'American Railway Union'; that in the month of May, 1894, there arose a difference or dispute between the Pullman Palace Car Company and its employees, as the result of which a considerable portion of the latter left the service of the car company; that thereafter the four officers of the railway union combined together, and with others, to compel an adjustment of such dispute, by creating a boycott against the cars of the car company; that, to make such boycott effective, the railroads running out of Chicago from operating the railroads running out of Chicago from operating their trains, and were combining to extend such boycott against Pullman sleeping cars by causing strikes among employees of all railroads attempting to haul the same. It charged knowledge on the part of the defendants of the necessity of the use of sleeping cars in the operation of the business of the railroads as common carriers, of the contracts for such use between the railroad companies and the car company, of the contracts, laws, and regulations binding the railway companies and the receivers to the carrying of the mails; also of the fact that sleeping cars were, and of necessity must be, carried upon the trains of said carriers with cars containing the mails; that with this knowledge they entered into a combination and conspiracy to prevent the railroad companies and the receivers, and each of them, from performing their duties as common carriers of interstate commerce, and in carrying into execution that conspiracy did induce various employees of the railway companies to leave the service of the companies, and prevent such companies and the receivers from securing other persons to take their places; that they issued orders, notifications, etc., to the members of the railway union to leave the service of the companies and receivers, and to prevent the companies and receivers from operating their trains; that they had asserted that they could and would tie up, paralyze, and break down any and every of said railway companies and receivers which did not accede to their demands; that, in pursuance of the instructions, commands, and requests of said officers, large numbers of the employees of the railway companies and receivers left their service.

Then followed these allegations:

'And your orator further charges that said defendants aimed and intended, and do now aim and intend, in and by the said conspiracy and combination, to secure unto themselves the entire control of the interstate, industrial, and commercial business in which the population of the city of Chicago and of the other communities along the lines of road of said railways are engaged with each other, and to restrain any and all other persons from any independent control or management of such interstate, industrial, or commercial enterprises, save according to the will and with the consent of the defendants. 'Your orator further avers that in pursuance of said combination and conspiracy, and to accomplish the purpose thereof as hereinbefore set forth, the said defendants Debs, Howard, Rogers, Keliher, and others, officers of said American Railway Union, issued or caused to be issued the orders and directions as above set forth, and that in obedience of such orders, and in pursuance of said conspiracy and combination, numerous employees of said railroad companies and receivers unitedly refused to obey the orders of said employers or to perform the usual duties of such service, and many others of such employees quit such service with the common purpose and with the result of preventing said railroad companies and receivers from operating their said railroads and from transporting the United States mails, and from carrying on or conducting their duties as common carriers of interstate traffic.

'Your orator further avers that, pursuant to said combination and conspiracy, and under the direction as aforesaid of said officers and directors of said American Railway Union, said other defendants, and other persons whose names are to your orator unknown, proceeded, by collecting together in large numbers, by threats, intimidation, force, and violence, at the station grounds, yards, and right of way of said railroad companies, respectively, in the state of Illinois, to prevent said railroad companies from employing other persons to fill the vacancies aforesaid; to compel others, still employees of said railroad companies, to quit such employment, and to refuse to perform the duties of their service, and to prevent the persons remaining in such service, and ready and willing to perform the duties of the same, from doing so.

'Your orator further avers that said defendants, in pursuance of said combination and conspiracy, acting under the direction of said officers and directors of said American Railway Union, did with force and violence, at divers times and places, within said state of Illinois and elsewhere, stop, obstruct, and derail and wreck the engines and trains of said railroad companies, both passenger and freight, then and there engaged in interstate commerce and in transporting United States mails, by locking the switches of the railroad of said railroad companies, by removing the spikes and rails from the track thereof, by turning switches and displacing and destroying signals, by assaulting and interfering with and disabling the switchmen and other employees of said railroad companies having charge of the signals, switches, and tracks of said companies, and the movement of trains thereon, and in other manners, by force and violence, depriving the employees of said railroad companies in charge of such trains of the control and management of the same, and by these and other unlawful means attempted to obtain and exercise absolute control and domination over the entire operations of said railroads.'

The bill further set forth that there had become established in the city of Chicago a business conducted under the name of the Union Stock Yards, at which for many years immense numbers of live stock from states and territories beyond the state of Illinois had been received, slaughtered, and converted into food products, and distributed to all quarters of the globe, and that all the large centers of population in the United States were in a great degree dependent upon those stock yards for their food supply of that character; that for the purpose of handling such live stock and the product thereof, the company conducting such business operated certain railroad tracks, and that in pursuance of the combination and conspiracy aforesaid the four defendants, officers of the railway union, issued orders directing all the employees handling such railroad tracks to abandon such service.

To this was added the following:

'And your orator further alleges that, in pursuance of the like combination and unlawful conspiracy, the said defendants, and others combining and conspiring with them, for the purpose of still further restraining and preventing the conduct of such business, have by menaces, threats, and intimidation prevented the employment of other persons to take the place of the employees quitting the service of said company so operating said Union Stock Yards.

'And your orator further charges that by reason of said unlawful combination and conspiracy and the acts and doings aforesaid thereunder, the supply of coal and fuel for consumption throughout the different states of the Union, and of grain, breadstuffs, vegetables, fruits, meats, and other necessaries of life, has been cut off, interrupted, and interfered with, and the market therefor made largely unavailable, and dealers in all of said various products and the consumers thereof have been greatly injured, and trade and commerce therein among the states her been restrained, obstructed, and largely destroyed.'

The bill alleged that the defendants threatened and declared that they would continue to restrain, obstruct, and interfere with interstate commerce, as above set forth, and that they 'will, if necessary to carry out the said unlawful combination and conspiracy above set forth, tie up and paralyze the operations of every railway in the United States, and the business and industries dependent thereon.' Following these allegations was a prayer for an injunction. The bill was verified.

On presentation of it to the court an injunction was ordered commanding the defendants 'and all persons combining and conspiring with them, and all other persons whomsoever, absolutely to desist and refrain from in any way or manner interfering with, hindering, obstructing, or stopping any of the business of any of the following named railroads


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This injunction was served upon the defendants, at least upon those who are here as petitioners. On July 17th the district attorney filed in the office of the clerk of said court an information for an attachment against the four defendants, officers of the railway union, and on August 1st, a similar information against the other petitioners. A hearing was had before the circuit court, and on December 14th these petitioners were found guilty of contempt, and sentenced to imprisonment in the county jail for terms varying from three to six months. 64 Fed. 724. Having been committed to jail in pursuance of this order, they, on January 14, 1895, applied to this court for a writ of error, and also one of habeas corpus. The former was on January 17th denied, on the ground that the order of the circuit court was not a final judgment or decree. The latter is now to be considered.

C. S. Darrow, S. S. Gregory, and Lyman Trumbull, for petitioners.

Atty. Gen. Olney, Asst. Atty. Gen. Whitney, and Edwin Walker,f or respondents.

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

The case presented by the bill is this: The United States, finding that the interstate transportation of persons and property, as well as the carriage of the mails, is forcibly obstructed, and that a combination and conspiracy exists to subject the control of such transportation to the will of the conspirators, applied to one of their courts, sitting as a court of equity, for an injunction to restrain such obstruction and prevent carrying into effect such conspiracy. Two questions of importance are presented: First. Are the relations of the general government to interstate commerce and the transportation of the mails such as authorized a direct interference to prevent a forcible obstruction thereof? Second. If authority exists, as authority in governmental affairs implies both power and duty, has a court of equity jurisdiction to issue an injunction in aid of the performance of such duty?  1. What are the relations of the general government to interstate commerce and the transportation of the mails? They are those of direct supervision, control, and management. While, under the dual system which prevails with us, the powers of government are distributed between the state and the nation, and while the latter is properly styled a government of enumerated powers, yet within the limits of such enumeration it has all the attributes of sovereignty, and, in the exercise of those enumerated powers, acts directly upon the citizen, and not through the intermediate agency of the state.

'The government of the Union, then, is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form and in substance it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit.'

'No trace is to be found in the constitution of an intention to create a dependence of the government of the Union on those of the states, for the execution of the great powers assigned to it. Its means are adequate to its ends, and on those means alone was it expected to rely for the accomplishment of its ends. To impose on it the necessity of resorting to means which it cannot control, which another government may furnish or withhold, would render its course precarious, the result of its measures uncertain, and create a dependence on other governments, which might disappoint its most important designs, and is incompatible with the language of the constitution.' Chief Justice Marshall in McCulloch v. State of Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 405, 424.

'Both the states and the United States existed before the constitution. The people, through that instrument, established a more perfect union by substituting a national government, acting, with ample power, directly upon the citizens, instead of the confederate government, which acted with powers, greatly restricted, only upon the states.' Chief Justice Chase in Lane Co. v. Oregon, 7 Wall. 71, 76.

'We hold it to be an incontrovertible principle that the government of the United States may, by means of physical force, exercised through its official agents, execute on every foot of American soil the powers and functions that belong to it. This necessarily involves the power to command obedience to its laws, and hence the power to keep the peace to that extent.'

'This power to enforce its laws and to execute its functions in all places does not derogate from the power of the state to execute its laws at the same time and in the same places. The one does not exclude the other, except where both cannot be executed at the same time. In that case the words of the constitution itself show which is to yield. 'This constitution, and all laws which shall be made in pursuance thereof, ... shall be the supreme law of the land.' Mr. Justice Bradley in Ex parte Siebold, 100 U.S. 371 , 395.

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Among the powers expressly given to the national government are the control of interstate commerce and the creation and management of a post- office system for the nation. Article 1, 8, of the constitution provides that 'the congress shall have power: ... Third, to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. ... Seventh, to establish post offices and post roads.'

Congress has exercised the power granted in respect to interstate commerce in a variety of legislative acts.

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That of February 4, 1887 (24 Stat. 379), with its amendments of March 2, 1889 (25 Stat. 855), and February 10, 1891 (26 Stat. 743), known as the 'Interstate Commerce Act,' by which a commission was created with large powers of regulation and control of interstate commerce by railroads, and the sixteenth section of which act gives to the courts of the United States power to enforce the orders of the commission. Fifth. That of October 1, 1888 (25 Stat. 501), providing for arbitration between railroad interstate companies and their employees. And, sixth, the act of March 2, 1893 (27 Stat. 531), requiring the use of automatic couplers on interstate trains, and empowering the interstate commerce commission to enforce its provisions.

Under the power vested in congress to establish post offices and post roads, congress has, by a mass of legislation, established the great post- office system of the country, with all its detail of organization, its machinery for the transaction of business, defining what shall be carried and what not, and the prices of carriage, and also prescribing penalties for all offenses against it.

Obviously, these powers given to the national government over interstate commerce, and in respect to the transportation of the mails, were not dormant and unused. Congress had taken hold of these two matters, and, by various and specific acts, had assumed and exercised the powers given to it, and was in the full discharge of its duty to regulate interstate commerce and carry the mails. The validity of such exercise, and the exclusiveness of its control, had been again and again presented to this court for consideration. It is curious to note the fact that, in a large proportion of the cases in respect to interstate commerce brought to this court, the question presented was of the validity of state legislation in its bearings upon interstate commerce, and the uniform course of decision has been to declare that it is not within the competency of a state to legislate in such a manner as to obstruct interstate commerce. If a state, with its recognized powers of sovereignty, is impotent to obstruct interstate commerce, can it be that any mere voluntary association of individuals within the limits of that state has a power which the state itself does not possess?

As, under the constitution, power over interstate commerce and the transportation of the mails is vested in the national government, and congress, by virtue of such grant, has assumed actual and direct control, it follows that the national government may prevent any unlawful and forcible interference therewith. But how shall this be accomplished? Doubtless, it is within the competency of congress to prescribe by legislation that any interferences with these matters shall be offenses against the United States, and prosecuted and punished by indictment in the proper courts. But is that the only remedy? Have the vast interests of the nation in interstate commerce, and in the transportation of the mails, no other protection than lies in the possible punishment of those who interfere with it? To ask the question is to answer it. By article 3, 2, cl. 3, of the federal constitution, it is provided: 'The trial of all crimes except in cases of impeachment shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crime shall have been committed.' If all the inhabitants of a state, or even a great body of them, should combine to obstruct interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails, prosecutions for such offenses had in such a community would be doomed in advance to failure. And if the certainty of such failure was known, and the national government had no other way to enforce the freedom of interstate commerce and the transportation of the mails than by prosecution and punishment for interference therewith, the whole interests of the nation in these respects would be at the absolute mercy of a portion of the inhabitants of that single state.

But there is no such impotency in the national government. The entire strength of the nation may be used to enforce in any part of the land the full and free exercise of all national powers and the security of all rights intrusted by the constitution to its care. The strong arm of the national government may be put forth to brush away all obstructions to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails. If the emergency arises, the army of the nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the nation, to compel obedience to its laws.

But, passing to the second question, is there no other alternative than the use of force on the part of the executive authorities whenever obstructions arise to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails? Is the army the only instrument by which rights of the public can be enforced, and the peace of the nation preserved? Grant that any public nuisance may be forcibly abated, either at the instance of the authorities, or by any individual suffering private damage therefrom. The existence of this right of forcible abatement is not inconsistent with, nor does it destroy, the right of appeal, in an orderly way, to the courts for a judicial determination, and an exercise of their powers, by writ of injunction and otherwise, to accomplish the same result. In Borough of Stamford v. Stamford Horse R. Co., 56 Conn. 381, 15 Atl. 749, an injunction was asked by the borough to restrain the company from laying down its track in a street of the borough. The right of the borough to forcibly remove the track was insisted upon as a ground for questioning the jurisdiction of a court of equity, but the court sustained the injunction, adding: 'And none the less so because of its right to remove the track by force. As a rule, injunctions are denied to those who have adequate remedy at law. Where the choice is between the ordinary and the extraordinary processes of law, and the former are sufficient, the rule will not permit the use of the latter. In some cases of nuisance, and in some cases of trespass, the law permits an individual to abate the one and prevent the other by force, because such permission is necessary to the complete protection of property and person. When the choice is between redress or prevention of injury by force and by peaceful process, the law is well pleased if the individual will consent to waive his right to the use of force, and await its action. Therefore, as between force and the extraordinary writ of injunction, the rule will permit the latter.'

So, in the case before us, the right to use force does not exclude the right of appeal to the courts for a judicial determination, and for the exercise of all their powers of prevention. Indeed, it is more to the praise than to the blame of the government that, instead of determining for itself questions of right and wrong on the part of these petitioners and their associates, and enforcing that determination by the club of the policeman and the bayonet of the soldier, it submitted all those questions to the peaceful determination of judicial tribunals, and invoked their consideration and judgment as to the measure of its rights and powers, and the correlative obligations of those against whom it made complaint. And it is equally to the credit of the latter that the judgment of those tribunals was by the great body of them respected, and the troubles which threatened so much disaster terminated.

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We do not care to place our decision upon this ground alone. Every government, intrusted by the very terms of its being with powers and duties to be exercised and discharged for the general welfare, has a right to apply to its own courts for any proper assistance in the exercise of the one and the discharge of the other, and it is no sufficient answer to its appeal to one of those courts that it has no pecuniary interest in the matter. The obligations which it is under to promote the interest of all and to prevent the wrongdoing of one, resulting in injury to the general welfare, is often of itself sufficient to give it a standing in court.

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It is obvious from these decisions that while it is not the province of the government to interfere in any mere matter of private controversy between individuals, or to use its great powers to enforce the rights of one against another, yet, whenever the wrongs complained of are such as affect the public at large, and are in respect of matters which by the constitution are intrusted to the care of the nation, and concerning which the nation owes the duty to all the citizens of securing to them their common rights, then the mere fact that the government has no pecuniary interest in the controversy is not sufficient to exclude it from the courts, or prevent it from taking measures therein to fully discharge those constitutional duties.

The national government, given by the constitution power to regulate interstate commerce, has by express statute assumed jurisdiction over such commerce when carried upon railroads. It is charged, therefore, with the duty of keeping those highways of interstate commerce free from obstruction, for it has always been recognized as one of the powers and duties of a government to remove obstructions from the highways under its control.

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Constitutional provisions do not change, but their operation extends to new matters, as the modes of business and the habits of life of the people vary with each succeeding generation. The law of the common carrier is the same to-day as when transportation on land was by coach and wagon, and on water by canal boat and sailing vessel; yet in its actual operation it touches and regulates transportation by modes then unknown,-the railroad train and the steamship. Just so is it with the grant to the national government of power over interstate commerce. The constitution has not changed. The power is the same. But it operates to-day upon modes of interstate commerce unknown to the fathers, and it will operate with equal force upon any new modes of such commerce which the future may develop.

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That the bill filed in this case alleged special facts calling for the exercise of all the powers of the court is not open to question. The picture drawn in it of the vast interests involved, not merely of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, but of all the states, and the general confusion into which the interstate commerce of the country was thrown; the forcible interference with that commerce; the attempted exercise by individuals of powers belonging only to government, and the threatened continuance of such invasions of public right, presented a condition of affairs which called for the fullest exercise of all the powers of the courts. If ever there was a special exigency, one which demanded that the courts should do all that courts can do, it was disclosed by this bill, and we need not turn to the public history of the day, which only reaffirms with clearest emphasis all its allegations.

. . .

Nor is there in this any invasion of the constitutional right of trial by jury.

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In brief, a court enforcing obedience to its orders by proceedings for contempt is not executing the criminal laws of the land, but only securing to suitors the rights which it has adjudged them entitled to.

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Whatever any single individual may have thought or planned, the great body of those who were engaged in these transactions contemplated neither rebellion nor revolution, and when in the due order of legal proceedings the question of right and wrong was submitted to the courts, and by them decided, they unhesitatingly yielded to their decisions. The outcome, by the very testimony of the defendants, attests the wisdom of the course pursued by the government, and that it was well not to oppose force simply by force, but to invoke the jurisdiction and judgment of those tribunals to whom by the constitution and in accordance with the settled conviction of all citizens is committed the determination of questions of right and wrong between individuals, masses, and states.

It must be borne in mind that this bill was not simply to enjoin a mob and mob violence. It was not a bill to command a keeping of the peace; much less was its purport to restrain the defendants from abandoning whatever employment they were engaged in. The right of any laborer, or any number of laborers, to quit work was not challenged. The scope and purpose of the bill was only to restrain forcible obstructions of the highways along which interstate commerce travels and the mails are carried. And the facts set forth at length are only those facts which tended to show that the defendants were engaged in such obstructions.

A most earnest and eloquent appeal was made to us in eulogy of the heroic spirit of those who threw up their employment, and gave up their means of earning a livelihood, not in defense of their own rights, but in sympathy for and to assist others whom they believed to be wronged. We yield to none in our admiration of any act of heroism or self-sacrifice, but we may be permitted to add that it is a lesson which cannot be learned too soon or too thoroughly that under this government of and by the people the means of redress of all wrongs are through the courts and at the ballot box, and that no wrong, real or fancied, carries with it legal warrant to invite as a means of redress the co-operation of a mob, with its accompanying acts of violence.

We have given to this case the most careful and anxious attention, for we realize that it touches closely questions of supreme importance to the people of this country. Summing up our conclusions, we hold that the government of the United States is one having jurisdiction over every foot of soil within its territory, and acting directly upon each citizen; that, while it is a government of enumerated powers, it has within the limits of those powers all the attributes of sovereignty; that to it is committed power over interstate commerce and the transmission of the mail; that the powers thus conferred upon the national government are not dormant, but have been assumed and put into practical exercise by the legislation of congress; that in the exercise of those powers it is competent for the nation to remove all obstructions upon highways, natural or artificial, to the passage of interstate commerce or the carrying of the mail; that, while it may be competent for the government (through the executive branch and in the use of the entire executive power of the nation) to forcibly remove all such obstructions, it is equally within its competency to appeal to the civil courts for an inquiry and determination as to the existence and character of any alleged obstructions, and if such are found to exist, or threaten to occur, to invoke the powers of those courts to remove or restrain such obstructions; that the jurisdiction of courts to interfere in such matters by injunction is one recognized from ancient times and by indubitable authority; that such jurisdiction is not ousted by the fact that the obstructions are accompanied by or consist of acts in themselves violations of the criminal law; that the proceeding by injunction is of a civil character, and may be enforced by proceedings in contempt; that such proceedings are not in execution of the criminal laws of the land; that the penalty for a violation of injunction is no substitute for and no defense to a prosecution for any criminal offenses committed in the course of such violation; that the complaint filed in this case clearly showed an existing obstruction of artificial highways for the passage of interstate commerce and the transmission of the mail,-an obstruction not only temporarily existing, but threatening to continue; that under such complaint the circuit court had power to issue its process of injunction; that, it having been issued and served on these defendants, the circuit court had authority to inquire whether its orders had been disobeyed, and, when it found that they had been, then to proceed under section 725, Rev. St., which grants power 'to punish, by fine or imprisonment, ... disobedience, ... by any party ... or other person, to any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command,' and enter the order of punishment complained of; and, finally, that the circuit court having full jurisdiction in the premises, its finding of the fact of disobedience is not open to review on habeas corpus in this or any other court. Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 193; Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651 , 4 Sup. Ct. 152; Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 280 - 305, 9 Sup. Ct. 77; In re Swan, 150 U.S. 637 , 14 Sup. Ct. 225; U. S. v. Pridgeon, 153 U.S. 48 , 14 Sup. Ct. 746.

We enter into no examination of the act of July 2, 1890 (26 Stat. 209 ), (Sherman Anti-Trust Act) upon which the circuit court relied mainly to sustain its jurisdiction. It must not be understood from this that we dissent from the conclusions of that court in reference to the scope of the act, but simply that we prefer to rest our judgment on the broader ground which has been discussed in this opinion, believing it of importance that the principles underlying it should be fully stated and affirmed.

The petition for a writ of a habeas corpus is denied.