APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COMMERCE COURT
White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Lurton, Hughes, Van Devanter, Lamar, Pitney
MR. JUSTICE PITNEY, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.
The contention of appellant in the Commerce Court and in this court is, that the regulations of the Interstate Commerce Commission relative to the method of keeping the accounts of common carriers, so far as they are here questioned, are unreasonable, beyond the power or authority of either Congress or the Commission, and violative of the Fifth Article of Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, as being a deprivation of property without due process of law. It is claimed that the effect of enforcing the regulations under the circumstances of the case is to reduce the amount of net earnings applicable to dividends and thereby cause an irreparable loss to the
preferred stockholders, whose dividends are non-cumulative and payable only out of the income of the current year; that the property accounts become inaccurate, because while appellant has actually expended something more than $600,000 in the improvement of its property, and its bonded indebtedness has been in fact increased by the like amount, the accounts will declare that for this expenditure the company has obtained a net accretion to its property of only a little over $200,000 ($629,399.74 less $386,484, or $234,747.74); that the Operating Expense Accounts will be improperly swollen by the inclusion therein of the sum of $386,484, to the deception of the stockholders and the investing public, and the impairment of the financial credit of the company; and that under the requirements of the Commission this sum of $386,484 cannot be charged to and finally taken out of the proceeds of the bonds, but must be charged to operating expenses, and thus taken from operating revenue, because of which (as is claimed) this amount, which has already been paid out of the proceeds of bonds, must ultimately be restored in cash to the bond account, and returned to the trustee or otherwise accounted for to the bondholders. As to the Shreveport shop and terminal plant that are to be abandoned, it is contended that it is unreasonable to require the cost of abandonment to be charged to operating expenses, and that this is a proper charge against the accumulated surplus, as represented in the profit and loss account.
The authority of the Commission rests upon § 20 of the "Act to Regulate Commerce" (February 4, 1887, 24 Stat. 379, c. 104, as amended by the Hepburn Act of June 29, 1906, 34 Stat. 584, cc. 3591).*fn1 The constitutional
validity of this legislation was sustained in Interstate Commerce Commission v. Goodrich Transit Co., 224 U.S. 194, 211, 214.
The authority conferred by Congress upon the Commerce Court (act of June 18, 1910; 36 Stat. 539, c. 309;
Judicial Code, § 207) with respect to enjoining or setting aside the orders of the Commission, like the authority previously exercised by the Federal Circuit Courts, was confined to determining whether there had been violations of the Constitution, or of the power conferred by statute, or an exercise of power so arbitrary as virtually to transcend the authority conferred. Interstate Com. Com. v. Illinois Central R. Co., 215 U.S. 452, 470; Interstate Com. Com. v. Union Pacific R. Co., 222 U.S. 541, 547; Procter & Gamble v. United States, 225 U.S. 282, 297; Interstate Com. Com. v. Balt. & Ohio R. Co., 225 U.S. 326, 340.
As to the intent and meaning of § 20, it is first insisted that the power conferred upon the Commission to prescribe the forms of accounts, records, and memoranda to be kept by the carriers, recognizes a distinction between the form and the substance; and that while the Commission, in order to obtain full and accurate information concerning the affairs of each corporation, must have power to require any reports, schedules, and accounts necessary to show the true financial condition of each carrier; yet that the grant must by fair interpretation, and in order not to amount to an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power, stop short of the point where the regulation in its essence goes not to the form but to the substance and involves interference with the internal affairs of the corporation. We do not, however, think that any such distinction between the form and the substance is admissible with respect to the declared object of standardizing railroad accounts and obtaining therefrom full and accurate information concerning the affairs of the respective corporations. The very object of a system of accounts is to display the pertinent financial operations of the company, and throw light upon its present condition. If they are to truly do this, the form must correspond with the substance. In order that accounts may be standardized,
it is necessary that the accounts of the several carriers shall be arranged under like headings or titles; and it is obviously essential that charges and credits shall be allocated under the proper headings -- the same with one carrier as with another. Unless "Additions and Betterments," on the one hand, and "Operating Expenses," on the other, are to indicate the same class of entries upon the books of one carrier that they indicate upon the books of other carriers, there is no possibility of standardization. So far as such uniformity requirements control or tend to control the conduct of the carrier in its capacity as a public servant engaged in interstate commerce, they are within the authority constitutionally conferred by Congress upon the Commission. There is no direct interference with the internal affairs of the corporation; and if any such interference indirectly results, it is only such as is incidental to the lawful control of the carrier by the Federal authority and to this the rights of stockholders and bondholders alike are necessarily subject.
It is said, however, that the meaning of the term "operating expenses" was well defined at the time of the passage of the act of 1887, and that during the period intervening between the beginning of the work of the Commission thereunder and the passage of the Hepburn Act in 1906, the term had never been construed to include any charge for property abandoned in the course of improvements; and that this settled construction, upon familiar principles, must be deemed to have entered into the purpose of Congress when it reenacted the language of § 20 in the latter year, and added to it authority to the Commission to prescribe in its discretion the forms of accounts and a prohibition against keeping any others than those prescribed or approved by the Commission. But it will be observed that § 20, as originally enacted, authorized the Commission "in its discretion for the purpose of enabling it the better to carry out the purposes of this act,
[to] prescribe a period of time within which all common carriers subject to the provisions of this act shall have, as near as may be, a uniform system of accounts, and the manner in which such accounts shall be kept." Congress, when it enacted the Hepburn Act in 1906, must have known that the Commission had not as yet found occasion to enforce this provision; and at the same time may be deemed to have contemplated that the authority then for the first time conferred upon the Commission to determine and prescribe the maximum rates to be charged by the carriers for the services to be performed by them, furnished a new and more cogent reason for establishing a uniform system of accounts.
The contention that the term "operating expenses" had a well-understood and defined meaning either recognized at the time of the passage of the act of 1887 or established by the constant practice of the Commission from that time until the Hepburn Act, so that the use of the term in the latter act amounted to an express limitation upon the grant of power to prescribe the forms of the accounts, is not well founded. Congress, in authorizing the Commission to prescribe a uniform system of accounts, recognized that accounting systems were not then uniform; and in reiterating this authorization in 1906, and adding a prohibition against the keeping of other accounts than those prescribed, manifested a purpose to standardize and render uniform the accounts of the different carriers with respect to matters that entered into property and the improvements thereof, on the one hand, and the current operations of the company, on the other. By the very terms of § 20, Congress at least outlined the classification of the carriers' accounts, for it required the annual reports to show "the amount of capital stock issued, the amounts paid therefor, and the manner of payment for the same . . . the surplus fund, if any, . . . the funded and floating
debts, . . . the cost and value of the carrier's property, franchises and equipments; . . . the amounts expended for improvements each year, how expended, and the character of such improvements; the earnings and receipts from each branch of business and from all sources; the operating and other expenses; the balances of profit and loss; and a complete exhibit of the financial operations of the carrier each year, including an annual balance sheet." By the same section the Commission was authorized to require these annual reports from all carriers subject to the Act, and to prescribe the manner in which the reports should be made, and for ...