United States v. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company
LOCATION: Quality Photo Shop

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1956-1957)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 352 US 77 (1956)
ARGUED: Oct 15, 1956
DECIDED: Dec 03, 1956

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 1956 (Part 1) in United States v. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 1956 (Part 2) in United States v. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company

Earl Warren:

Mr. Hollander.

Morton Hollander:

May it please the Court.

The respondents in the napalm gel case and by incorporation by reference, the respondents in Number 19 have argued that there are outstanding a number of decisions of this Court holding that the two-year limitation period prescribed by Section 16 (3) of the Interstate Commerce Act is jurisdictional in a sense that it sets an outside boundary on the power of the Commission to entertain proceedings filed with -- after the expiration of the two-year period.

I believe that that was the -- the question Mr. Justice Harlan was interested in.

Now, we -- we recognized the -- the existence of these series of decisions characterized by the respondents as an unbroken line of decision.

We feel though that they are besides the point here.

All of those decisions to the extent that they involved proceedings by shippers before the Interstate Commerce Commission are proceedings initiated independently as a matter of first resort by the shipper against the carrier before the Commission and none of those cases cited is establishing these jurisdictional limits on the Interstate Commerce Commission deal with the power of the Court as an incident of a proceeding timely filed before it to refer to the Commission.

I repeat as an incident of the power of the Court hearing the case to refer to the Commission a proceeding notwithstanding the lapse of the two-year period.

For that reason, we believe that -- that line of jurisdictional cases by itself, that reason alone, requires that those decisions on the jurisdictional point would be viewed as not -- not being in point.

Now, their jurisdictional argument or the argument that these cases set a jurisdictional limit and the Commissions thereby deprived the power and can't take the case also ignores the fact and this is recognized by respondents in another face of their argument.

It -- it ignores the fact that the Government is because it is the Government because it is the sovereign.

It is entitled to a special immunity from statute of limitations provisions.

So that even if it were to be assumed as respondents necessarily contend that the reach of Section 16 (3) goes far beyond its language and extends not only to independent reparation proceedings but also to proceedings referred to the Commission as an incident of a timely filed suit in court.

And even if that assumption were indulged in, the respondents cannot possibly explain away the fact that the United States traditionally has been held to be immune from such a statute of limitations provisions.

Now, the only time -- the only time the United States may be subjected to a limitation defense, the only time such a defense may be ruled to apply to the United States, and this Court has consistently held, is in a situation where Congress has explicitly manifested an intent to subject the United States to that particular statute of limitations.

In other words, if in Section 16 (3) (b), there were some explicit manifestation and the only way that manifestation could possibly be expressed would be by saying that independent reparation proceedings filed by the United States just as an independent reparation proceedings filed by any other shipper, they would have to refer explicitly to the United States and subject the United States to the bar of their two-year period.

That, of course, was not done here.

The respondents seem to us to take a very inconsistent position because they recognize on the one hand that because of the sovereign -- this traditional sovereign immunity from limitations, the United States, the United States if it went into court beyond the expiration of the two-year period, if it went into court, Section 16 (3) they say they agree would be no bar.

Here, however, they insist that if rather than going to the Court directly, they are hailed into court and try to get before the Commission as an incident of a timely filed judicial proceeding, they somehow reason that this traditional sovereign immunity from limitations is thrown out of the window, so that the United States may be met whether he joined to that, you're too late now to go over to the Commission, even though you want to get there as an incident to a timely filed judicial proceeding.

Now, we believe on either one of those two grounds, the line of cases holding that Section 16 (3) is jurisdictional, really has no application here.

First, as I've pointed out those cases involved independent reparation proceedings not those referred as an incident.

Secondly, it gives no consideration to the unique position.

The United States has always occupied in its immunity, special immunity from limitation defenses.

For the reasons I've tried to outline and the reasons we advanced in the earlier case and those in our brief, we respectfully submit that the judgment of the Court of Appeals in number 19 and that the judgment of the Court of Claims in number 18 to be reversed with instructions in both cases remanding the cases to the lower courts in order to afford the Government, the petitioner here, a full opportunity to present all of its defenses.

Earl Warren:

Mr. Spicer.

Meade T. Spicer, Jr.:

May it please the Court.

With reference to the question just discussed by Mr. Hollander, I do like to call attention to the brief filed in number 18, page 29, we incorporated by reference the argument there on this particular point.

And on page 29, the -- as quoted from the Commission case itself, in fact in 80 I.C.C. in which it went into the reasons for its conclusion that it could not pass on a claim that was filed after two years.

And it said, “It is fundamental that we act only under the jurisdiction conferred upon us by Congress.

It is the status of the tribunal rather than the status of the litigant.”