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Railroad Retirement Board vs. Alton Railroad Co. [1935]

 

ROBERTS, J. The respondents, comprising 134 Class I railroads, two express companies, and the Pullman Company, brought this suit in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia alerting the unconstitutionality of the Railroad Retirement Act and praying an injunction against its enforcement....

The Act establishes a compulsory retirement and pension system for all carriers subject to the Interstate Commerce Act. There provision for the creation of a fund to be deposited in the United States treasury and administered by a Board denominated an independent agency in the executive branch of the Government. The retirement fund for payment of these pensions and for the expenses of administration of the system will arise from compulsory contributions from present and future employees and the carriers. The sums payable by the employees are to be percentages of their current compensation, and those by each carrier double the total payable by its employees. The Board is to determine from time to time what percentage is required to provide the necessary funds, but until that body otherwise determines the employee contribution is to be 2% of compensation. Out of this fund annuities are to be paid to beneficiaries....

The Supreme Court of the District of Columbia declared the establishment of such a system within the competence of Congress; but thought several inseparable features of the Act transcended the legislative power to regulate interstate commerce, and required a holding that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety. Our duty, like that of the court below, is fairly to construe the powers of Congress, and to ascertain whether or not the enactment falls within them, uninfluenced by predilection for or against the policy disclosed in the legislation. The fact that the compulsory scheme is novel is, of course, no evidence of unconstitutionality. Even should we consider the Act unwise and prejudicial to both public and private interest, if it be fairly within delegated power our obligation is to sustain it. On the other hand though we should think the measure embodies a valuable social plan and be in entire sympathy with its purpose and intended results, if the provisions go beyond the boundaries of constitutional power we must so declare....

The petitioners assert that the questioned Act, fairly considered, is a proper and necessary regulation of interstate commerce; its various provisions have reasonable relation to the main and controlling purposes of the enactment, the promotion of efficiency, economy and safety; consequently it falls within the power conferred by the commerce clause and does not offend the principle of due process. The respondents insist that numerous features of the Act contravene the due process guaranty and further that the requirement of pensions for employees of railroads is not a regulation of interstate commerce within the meaning of the Constitution....

. .. Broadly, the record presents the question whether a statutory requirement that retired employees shall be paid pensions is regulation of commerce between the States within Article I, 8....

. It results from what has now been said that the Act is invalid because several of its inseparable provisions contravene the due process of law clause of the Fifth Amendment. We are of opinion that it is also bad for another reason which goes to the heart of the law, even if it could survive the loss of the unconstitutional features which we have discussed. The Act is not in purpose or effect a regulation of interstate commerce within the meaning of the Constitution.

Several purposes are expressed in 2 (a), amongst them: to provide "adequately for the satisfactory retirement of aged employees"; "to make possible greater employment opportunity and more rapid advancement"; to provide by the administration and construction of the Act "the greatest practicable amount of relief from unemployment and the greatest possible use of resources available for said purpose and for the payment of annuities for the relief of superannuated employees." The respondents assert and the petitioners admit that though these may in and of themselves be laudable objects, they have no reasonable relation to the business of interstate transportation. The clause, however, states a further purpose, the promotion of "efficiency and safety in interstate transportation," and the respondents concede that an act, the provisions of which show that it actually is directed to the attainment of such a purpose, falls within the regulatory power conferred upon the Congress; but they contend that here the provisions of the statue emphasize the necessary conclusion that the plan is conceived solely for the promotion of the stated purposes other than efficient and safe operation of the railroads. The petitioners' view is that this is the true and only purpose of the enactment, and the other objects stated are collateral to it and may be disregarded if the law is found apt for the promotion of this legitimate purpose.

From what has already been said with respect to sundry features of the statutory scheme, it must be evident that petitioners' view is that safety and efficiency are promoted by two claimed results of the plan: the abolition of excessive superannuation, and the improvement of morale. .

In final analysis, the petitioners' sole reliance is the thesis that efficiency depends upon morale, and morale in turn upon assurance of security for the worker's old age. Thus pensions are sought to be related to efficiency of transportation, and brought within the commerce power. In supporting the Act the petitioners constantly recur to such phrases as "old age security," "assurance of old age security," "improvement of employee morale and efficiency through providing definite assurance of old age security," "assurance of old age support," "mind at ease," and "fear of old age dependency." These expressions arc frequently connected with assertions that the removal of the fear of old age dependency will tend to create a better morale throughout the ranks of employees. The theory is that one who has an assurance against future dependency will do his work more cheerfully, and therefore more efficiently. The question at once presents itself whether the fostering of a contented mind on the part of an employee by legislation of this type, is in any just sense a regulation of interstate transportation. If that question be answered in the affirmative, obviously there is no limit to the field of so-called regulation. The catalogue of means and actions which might be imposed upon an employer in any business, tending to the satisfaction and comfort of his employees, seems endless. Provision for free medical attendance and nursing, for clothing, for food, for housing, for the education of children, and a hundred other matters, might with equal propriety be proposed as tending to relieve the employee of mental strain and worry. Can it fairly be said that the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extends to the prescription of any or all of these things? Is it not apparent that they are really and essentially related solely to the |social welfare of the worker, and therefore remote from any regulation of commerce as such? We think the answer is plain. These matters obviously lie outside the orbit of Congressional power. The answer of the petitioners is that not all such means of promoting contentment have such a close relation to interstate commerce as pensions. This is in the truth no answer, for we must deal with the principal involved and not the means adopted. If contentment of the employee an object for the attainment of which the regulatory power could be exerted, the courts could not question the wisdom of methods adopted for its advancement....

Certainly the argument is inconsistent with any thought that a plan imposed by statute, requiring the payment of a pension, will promote the same loyalty and continuity of service which were the ends and objects of the voluntary plans. It is going far to say, as petitioners do, that Congress chose the more progressive method "already tried in the laboratory of industrial experience," which they claim has been approved and recommended a those qualified to speak. In support of the 'assertion, however, they cite general works dealing with voluntary pension plans, and not with any such compulsory system as that with which we are concerned. We think it cannot be denied, and, indeed, is in effect admitted, that the sole reliance of the petitioners is the tilt: ory that contentment and assert of security are the major purposes of the Act. \Ne cannot agree that these ends if dictated by statute, and not voluntarily extended by the employer, encourage loyalty and continuity of service. We feel bound to hold that a pension plan thus imposed is in no proper sense a regulation of the activity of interstate transportation.. It is an attempt for social ends impose by sheer fiat non-contractual incidents upon the relation of employer and employee, not as a rule or regulation of commerce and transportation between the States, I as a means of assuring a particular class, of employees against old age dependency. This is neither a necessary nor an appropriate rule or regulation affecting the due fulfillment of the railroads' duty to serve the public in interstate transportation. The judgment of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia is Affirmed .

HUGHES, C. J., dissenting. I am unable to concur in the decision of this case. The gravest aspect of the decision is that it does not rest simply upon a condemnation of particular features of the Railroad Retirement Act, but denies to Congress the power to pass any compulsory pension act for railroad employees. If the opinion were limited to the particular provisions of the Act, which the majority find to be objectionable and not severable, the Congress would be free to overcome the objections by a new statute. Classes of persons held to be improperly brought within the range of the Act could be eliminated. Criticisms of the basis of payments, of the conditions prescribed for the receipt of benefits, and of the requirements of contributions could be met. Even in place of a unitary retirement system another sort of plan could be worked out. What was thus found to be inconsistent with the requirements of due process could be exercised and other provisions substituted. But after discussing these matters, the majority finally raise a barrier against all legislative action of this nature by declaring that the subject matter itself lies beyond the reach of the congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce. In that view, no matter how suitably limited a pension act for railroad employees might be with respect to the persons to be benefited, or how appropriate the measure of retirement allowances, or how sound actuarially the plan, or how well adjusted the burden, still under this decision Congress would not be at liberty to enact such a measure. That is a conclusion of such serious and far-reaching importance that it overshadows all other questions raised by the Act. Indeed, it makes their discussion superfluous. The final objection goes, as the opinion states, "to the heart of the law, even if it could survive the loss of the unconstitutional features" which the opinion perceives. I think that the conclusion thus reached is a departure from sound principles and places an unwarranted limitation upon the commerce clause of the Constitution....

. .. I think that it is clear that the morale of railroad employees has an important bearing upon the efficiency of the transportation service, and that a reasonable pension plan by its assurance of security is an appropriate means to that end. Nor should such a plan be removed from the reach of constitutional power by classing it with a variety of conceivable benefits which have no such close and substantial relation to the terms and conditions of employment. The appropriate relation of the exercise of constitutional power to the legitimate objects of that power is always a subject of judicial scrutiny. With approximately 82 per cent of railroad employees, 90 per cent of those employed in cable, telephone and telegraph companies, and about one-half of those in the service of electric railways, light, heat and power companies under formal pension plans, with the extensive recognition by national, state and local governments of the benefit of retirement and pension systems for public employees in the interest of both efficiency and economy, it is evident that there is a widespread conviction that the assurance of security through a pension plan for retired employees is closely and substantially related to the proper conduct of business enterprises.

But with respect to the carriers' plans, we are told that as they were framed in the desire to promote loyalty and continuity of service in the employment of particular carriers, the accruing advantages were due to the fact that the plans were of a voluntary character. In short, that the reaction of the employees would be simply one of gratitude for an act of grace. I find no adequate basis for a conclusion that the advantages of a pension plan can be only such as the carriers contemplated or that the benefit which may accrue to the service from a sense of security on the part of employees should be disregarded. In that aspect, it would be the fact that protection was assured, and not the motive in supplying it, which would produce the desired result. That benefit would not be lost because the sense of security was fostered by a pension plan enforced as an act of justice. Indeed, voluntary plans may have the defect of being voluntary, of being subject to curtailment or withdrawal at will. And the danger of such curtailment or abandonment, with the consequent frustration of the hopes of a vast number of railroad workers and its effect upon labor relation in this enterprise of outstanding national importance, might well be considered as an additional reason for the adoption of a compulsory plan....

The fundamental consideration which supports this type of legislation is that industry should take care of its human wastage, whether that is due to accident or age. That view cannot be dismissed as arbitrary or capricious. It is a reasoned conviction based upon abundant experience. The expression of that conviction in law is regulation. When expressed in the government of interstate carriers, with respect to their employees likewise engaged in interstate commerce, it is a regulation of that commerce. As such, so far as the subject matter is concerned, the commerce clause should be held applicable....

The power committed to Congress to govern interstate commerce does not require that its government should be wise, much less that it should be perfect. The power implies a broad discretion and thus permits a wide range even of mistakes. Expert discussion of pension plans reveals different views of the manner in which they should be set up and a close study of advisable methods is in progress. It is not our province to enter that field, and I am not persuaded that Congress in entering it for the purpose of regulating interstate carriers has transcended the limits of the authority which the Constitution confers.
I think the decree should be reversed.