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U.S. Supreme Court

Walla Walla City v. Walla Walla Water Co., 172 U.S. 1 (1898)

Walla Walla City v. Walla Walla Water Company

No. 28

Argued October 12-13, 1898

Decided November 14, 1898

172 U.S. 1


By an Act of November 28, 1883, the Legislature of Washington Territory incorporated the City of Walla Walla, conferring upon it, among other powers, the power to provide a sufficient supply of water for the city, and the right to permit the use of the city streets for the purpose of laying pipes for furnishing such supply for a term not exceeding twenty-five years. The act contained a further provision fixing the limit of indebtedness of the city at fifty thousand dollars. The city, under this authority, by contract granted to the Walla Walla Water Company the right to lay and maintain water mains, etc., for twenty-five years, reserving to itself the right to maintain fire hydrants and to flush sewers during this term, each without charge. The contract further provided that it was voidable by the city, so far as it required the payment of money, upon the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction whenever there should be a substantial failure of such supply, or a like failure on the part of the company to perform its agreements, and that, until the contract should have been so avoided, the city should not erect, or maintain, or become interested in other water works. These provisions were accepted by the Water Company, and were complied with by it, and the contract was in force when this bill was filed. In 1893, the city authorities chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 172 U. S. 2

passed an ordinance to provide for the construction of a system of water works to supply the city with water, and to issue bonds for that purpose to the amount of one hundred and sixty thousand dollars, which ordinance was accepted by the necessary majority of legal voters. The Water Company then filed its bill to enjoin the city from creating the proposed water works or from expending city moneys for that purpose, or from issuing city securities therefor. To this bill, the city demurred, resting its demurrer upon a want of jurisdiction, all parties on both sides being citizens of the Washington.


(1) That the allegations in the bill raise a question of the constitutional power of the city to impair the obligations of its contract with the plaintiffs by adopting the ordinance.

(2) That the grant of a right to supply water to a municipality and its inhabitants through pipes and mains laid in the streets of a city, upon condition of the performance of its service by the grantee, is the grant of a franchise vested in the state (which may be made by municipal authorities when the right to do so is given by their charters) in consideration of the performance of a public service, and, after performance by the grantee, is a contract, protected by the Constitution of the United States against state legislation to impair it.

(3) That the plaintiff has no adequate and complete remedy at law, and the Court has jurisdiction in equity.

(4) That, as the contract was limited to twenty-five years, and as no attempt was made to grant an exclusive privilege, the city acted within the strictest limitation of its charter.

(6) That if the contract for the water supply was innocuous in itself, and was carried out with due regard to the good order of the city and the health of its inhabitants, the aid of the police power could not be invoked to abrogate or impair it.

(6) That the stipulation that the city would not erect water works of its own during the life of the contract did not render it objectionable.

(7) That the objection that the indebtedness created by the contract exceeded the amount authorized by the charter was without merit under the circumstances.

(8) That the act of 1883, being subsequent to the general statute of 1881, authorizing cities to provide for a supply of water, was not

in violation of that act.

(9) That the city was bound to procure the nullity of the contract before the courts before it could treat it as void.

This was a bill in equity filed by the Water Company to enjoin the City of Walla Walla and its officers from erecting water works in pursuance of an ordinance of the city to that effect, or from acquiring any property for the purpose of carrying out such enterprise, or from expending the moneys chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 172 U. S. 3

of the city or selling its bonds or other securities for the purpose of enabling the city to erect such water works.

The facts are substantially as follows: by an Act of the Territory of Washington, November 28, 1883 (Laws of 1883, 270), incorporating the City of Walla Walla, it was enacted (section 11) that the city should have "power . . . to provide . . . a sufficient supply of water," and by section 10,

"to grant the right to use the streets of said city for the purpose of laying gas and other pipes intended to furnish the inhabitants of said city with light or water, to any persons or association of persons for a term not exceeding twenty-five years, . . . provided always that none of the rights or privileges herein granted shall be exclusive, nor prevent the council from granting the same rights to others."

Other sections are as follows:

"SEC. 11. The City of Walla Walla shall have power to erect and maintain water works within or without the city limits, or to authorize the erection of the same, for the purpose of furnishing the city or the inhabitants thereof with a sufficient supply of water, . . . and to enact all ordinances and regulations necessary to carry the power herein conferred into effect; but no water works shall be erected by the city until a majority of the voters, who shall be those only who are freeholders in the city, or pay a property tax therein, on not less than five hundred dollars' worth of property, shall at a general or special election vote for the same."

"SEC. 12. Said city is hereby authorized and empowered to condemn and appropriate so much private property as shall be necessary for the construction and operation of such water works, and shall have power to purchase or condemn water works already erected or which may be erected, and may mortgage or hypothecate the same to secure to the persons from whom the same may be purchased the payment of the purchase price thereof."

"* * * *"

"SEC. 22. The City of Walla Walla shall have power to adopt proper ordinances for the government of the city, and to carry into effect the powers given by this act. "

Page 172 U. S. 4

"* * * *"

"SEC. 23. The City of Walla Walla shall have power to establish and regulate the fees and compensation of all its officers, except when otherwise provided, and have such other power and privileges not here specifically enumerated as are incide