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POSTAL TELEGRAPH-CABLE CO v. NEW HOPE

January 4, 1904

POSTAL TELEGRAPH-CABLE CO
v.
NEW HOPE



ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA

Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, White, Peckham, McKenna, Holmes, Day

Author: PECKHAM

[ 192 U.S. Page 60]

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

The ground upon which an ordinance of this nature may be upheld is stated in the two cases of Western Union Telegraph Company v. New Hope, 187 U.S. 419, and Atlantic &c. Telegraph Company v. Philadelphia, 190 U.S. 160.

The trial court held that the question whether the ordinance in this case was reasonable or not was one for the court, but he submitted it to the jury for their aid and as advisory only, the

[ 192 U.S. Page 61]

     court stating to the jury that it would thereafter regulate the judgment to be entered in accordance with such views as the court might entertain as to the reasonableness of the ordinance, and after having the benefit of the assistance of the jury upon that question.

The direction to the jury was to give a verdict for the full sum, if it thought that the ordinance was reasonable, and if not -- that is, if the jury thought that the ordinance was not reasonable then the verdict should be for the defendant. The jury did not obey that direction. It returned a verdict for a considerably less sum than was due if the ordinance were valid, and by such verdict (regard being had to the charge of the judge) it necessarily found the license fee provided for in the ordinance was unreasonable and the ordinance itself invalid. The verdict is, therefore, simply evidence of what the jury conceived to be a reasonable sum, which it thereupon proceeded to assess by its verdict, and being much less than the ordinance called for. It made itself a taxing body, the verdict being the result of its own views as to what the fees should have been. When the verdict was rendered and the court directed judgment to be entered thereon it must have thereby concurred with the jury and held the ordinance unreasonable and therefore void. Otherwise, if the ordinance was valid, the court would have directed judgment for the full sum without reference to the verdict. Finding, therefore, that the ordinance was void, instead of directing judgment for the defendant, the court followed the jury and directed judgment for the sum which the court regarded as reasonable, being the same sum found by the jury. This follows because the court had theretofore stated that in its view this ordinance was an arbitrary imposition of a license tax, and the court also announced that the verdict of the jury was not conclusive and would be acted upon by it in accordance with such views as it might entertain after the verdict was rendered. But neither the court nor the jury had any power whatever to give judgment for what either might regard a reasonable sum, if that

[ 192 U.S. Page 62]

     sum were less than the amount provided for in the ordinance. The source of jurisdiction to give any verdict or judgment for the plaintiff was the ordinance. If the amount of the license fee provided for therein was unreasonable, the ordinance was void, and there was no power in either jury or court to substitute its own judgment as to what was reasonable and to give a verdict or direct a judgment to be entered for that sum. Finding the sum named in the ordinance unreasonable, the verdict or judgment should have been for the defendant.

The argument that plaintiff alone can complain that the verdict is too small is not well founded in this instance. It is undoubtedly the general rule that a verdict or judgment for a less sum for the plaintiff than he is entitled to under the evidence is matter of complaint for him alone, and if acquiesced in by him the defendant has no cause to complain that he is charged for a less sum than he ought to have been. On grounds already stated the reasons do not apply in a case like this.

Both the Superior and the Supreme Courts of Pennsylvania proceeded in their decisions upon the theory that the question was for the court, and that the ordinance was valid, but as the jury had found a less sum than provided for by the ordinance, the judgment might stand, and the defendant could not in such event complain that the judgment was too small. Those courts in effect reverse the finding of the jury that the ordinance was unreasonable and void, while at the same time maintaining a judgment based upon such finding.

In Western Union Telegraph Company v. Borough of New Hope, 187 U.S. 419, the question of the reasonableness of the license fee exacted was left to the jury, and the jury found a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and judgment was rendered thereon, which was affirmed by the state courts upon appeal. Upon writ of error from this court the case was reviewed here, and it was held that, as the jury and the Court of Common Pleas, the ...


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