Petty v. Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission

RESPONDENT: Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission
LOCATION: Union Station

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 359 US 275 (1959)
ARGUED: Mar 04, 1959
DECIDED: Apr 20, 1959

Facts of the case


Media for Petty v. Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 04, 1959 in Petty v. Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission

Earl Warren:

Number 233, Naomi Petty, Petitioner, versus Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission.

Mr. MacLeod.

Douglas MacLeod:

May it please the Court.

We're dealing here with the death of a crew member of a ferryboat which happened back in July of 1956, on the occasion of a collision between his ferry and an up bound barge pusher or a towboat, that was pushing some barges, the ferry crossing from Missouri to Tennessee and the towboat coming upstream in the Mississippi River.

The collision happened in the channel of navigation.

The suit originated as a Jones Act suit by the administratrix of the deckhand of the ferry who was drowned and the defendant in the original action, the Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission came in on a motion in the District Court asserting sovereign immunity of the States of Tennessee and Missouri and this motion was sustained.

We were thrown out of court.

We went to the Court of Appeals of the Eighth Circuit and the Court of Appeals of the Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court.

Now, we know who the plaintiff is, the petitioner.

The difficulty in this case arises with the respondent, the defendant in the Jones Act action below.

What sort of a creature?

What sort of standing in court in federal court particularly, does the federal -- do the federal courts have any jurisdiction in this kind of a case?

First, is it the sovereignty?

Is the sovereignty of the States of Missouri and Tennessee involved?

Are we dealing with the sovereign States of Tennessee and Missouri?

That's one question which, as of a purely substantive character, goes to the very essence of the right to sue at all in this type of situation by anybody.

The second question, even if there is a right to sue, does the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution preclude the exercise of jurisdiction by the courts of the United States?

Tennessee-Missouri Bridge Commission is a body, a corporate, and politic to use the language of its charter or compact set up by joint action, simultaneous action of the legislators of Tennessee and Missouri with the consent of the Congress of the United States and without which consent such compact would be null and void under the Constitution.

The Congress gave conditional consent at the time that it gave us consent and it is of the utmost importance to petitioner, the conditions under which Congress gave its consent.

The language of Congress, in approving the compact, provided “That nothing contained herein shall be construed to affect, impair or diminish any right, power or jurisdiction of the United States or of any court, department, board, bureau, officer, or official of the United States, over or in regard to any navigable waters, or any commerce between the States or with foreign countries, or any other matter, any other person, matter or thing forming the subject matter of the aforesaid compact or agreement or otherwise affected by the terms thereof.”

Now, that's in the appendix to our brief and it's listed in the body of the brief as pages 8, 3 and 4.

The printer, however, continued in directing numerical sequence.

So, it begins on page 19 and that will be page 21 of the brief.

That's the Public Law 411 of the 81st Congress, the consent statute approving this compact, just by a State compact, and it's our position that the compact itself and all language contained therein must be construed in the light of the conditions imposed by Congress and there is language in the compact conferring upon the respondent commission, the power to sue and be sued.

That's in language that has become familiar in granting powers to public corporate bodies, the languages, the power to contract, to sue and be sued.

What does it mean?

Does it mean what it says or does it mean that the words to sue and be sued are limited by the word preceding to contract?

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Yes, but even if the -- that constitute consent to sue and be sued, you're still though -- you do not have to get over the hurdle, whether there is any substantive obligation, in other words whether the -- there is any immunity involved here because this is a government obligation --

Douglas MacLeod:

If the Government --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

-- with respect to the doctrine of respondent's superior?