Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. v. City of Chicago (1897) – Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

In October 1880, the Chicago City Council decided to widen Rockwell Street, requiring the City to acquire certain private property owned by individuals and a right-of-way owned by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company.  The City of Chicago brought a condemnation suit in state court, and the jury awarded compensation to the individuals but only awarded one dollar to the railroad for its right-of-way.  The railroad appealed, asserting that the condemnation was a taking in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the judgment and the railroad thereafter appealed to the United States Supreme Court on a writ of error.  The issue before the Supreme Court was whether a provision in the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution applies to a state through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Background of the Case and the Controversy

At the time, the Illinois State Constitution included specific provisions relating to the taking of property, which in part provided:

[N]o person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.

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Private property shall not be taken or damaged for public use without just compensation. Such compensation, when not made by the State, shall be ascertained by a jury, as shall be prescribed by law. The fee of land taken for railroad tracks, without consent of the owners thereof, shall remain in such owners, subject to the use for which it is taken.

A general statute passed on April 10, 1872, relating to the incorporation of cities and villages, provided that:

[t]he city council shall have power, by condemnation or otherwise, to extend any street, alley or highway over or across, or to construct any sewer under or through any railroad track, right of way or land of any railroad company (within the corporate limits); but where no compensation is made to such railroad company, the city shall restore such railroad track, right of way or land to its former state, or in a sufficient manner not to have impaired its usefulness.

When Chicago was founded in 1875, the provisions in the 1872 statute were incorporated into its charter. 

The Supreme Court Decision

The Court, in a 7-1 decision written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, first rejected the City’s argument that due process was satisfied simply by permitting the railroad company’s grievance to be heard, stating:

But a State may not, by any of its agencies, disregard the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment. Its judicial authorities may keep within the letter of the statute prescribing forms of procedure in the courts, and give the parties interested the fullest opportunity to be heard, and yet it might be that its final action would be inconsistent with that amendment. In determining what due process of law is, regard must be had to substance, not to form. This Court, referring to the Fourteenth Amendment, has said:

‘Can a State make anything due process of law which, by its own legislation, it chooses to declare such? To affirm this is to hold that the prohibition to the States is of no avail, or has no application, where the invasion of private rights is effected under the forms of state legislation.’

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. v. City of Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 234-35 (1897).

Finding that the substance of due process required compensation, the Court continued, stated that:

Notice to the owner to appear in some judicial tribunal and who cause why his property shall not be taken for public use without compensation would be a mockery of justice.

Id. at 237.

By finding that compensation was required, the Court incorporated the “just compensation” requirement of the Fifth Amendment through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In so doing, the Court, for the first time, held that a specific provision in the Bill of Rights was applicable to the states. On its face, the Bill of Rights was only applicable to the federal government and not to the states.  The City had argued against incorporation.  In holding the prevision applicable to a state, Harlan stated:

In our opinion, a judgment of a state court, even if it be authorized by statute, whereby private property is taken for the State or under its direction for public use, without compensation made or secured to the owner, is, upon principle and authority, wanting in the due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and the affirmance of such judgment by the highest court of the State is a denial by that State of a right secured to the owner by that instrument.

Id. at 241.

The Court considered whether just compensation had in fact been given to the railroad and, based on a review of the Illinois Constitution and the 1872 Act, the Court held that the State had adequately compensated the railroad for its right-of-way.  Justice David Brewer dissented from this ruling, asserting that the railroad had been deprived of “valuable property without any, or at least only nominal, compensation.”

Conclusion 

The Chicago decision was a landmark one because the Court for the first time incorporated a specific provision of the Bill of Rights through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applied the requirements in the Bill of Rights to the States.  Since this decision, the Supreme Court has on numerous occasions incorporated many other provisions of the Bill of Rights through the Due Process Clause and likewise applied them to the States.

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy RR v. City of Chicago (1897) Supreme Court decision: 7-1: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/166us226

Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies.  He is also a Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.

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