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U.S. Supreme Court

Standard Oil Co. of Kentucky v. Tennessee, 217 U.S. 413 (1910)

Standard Oil Co. of Kentucky v. Tennessee

No. 160

Argued April 20, 1910

Decided May 2, 1910

217 U.S. 413




The Fourteenth Amendment will not be construed as introducing a factitious equality without regard to practical differences that are best met by corresponding differences of treatment.

Where a distinction may be made in the evil that delinquents are forced to suffer, a difference in establishing the delinquency may also be justifiable, and a state may provide for a different method of determining chanrobles.com-red

Page 217 U. S. 414

the guilt of a corporation from that of an individual without violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and so held as to the provisions in the antitrust statute of Tennessee of 1903 prohibiting arrangements for lessening competition under which corporations are proceeded against by bill in equity for ouster, while individuals are proceeded against as criminals by indictment, trial, and punishment on conviction.

A transaction is not necessarily interstate commerce because it relates to a transaction of interstate commerce, and so held that a statute of Tennessee prohibiting arrangements within the state for lessening competition is not void as a regulation of interstate commerce as to sales made by persons without the state to persons within the state.

While a federal question exists as to whether unequal protection of the law is afforded by excluding a class from the defense of the statute of limitations, the construction of the statute as to its scope is for the state court, and does not present a federal question.

120 Tenn. 86 affirmed.

The facts, which involve the constitutionality of certain provisions of the antitrust statute of Tennessee of 1903, are stated in the opinion. chanrobles.com-red

Page 217 U. S. 419

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The plaintiff in error is a Kentucky corporation, and seeks to reverse a decree of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, forbidding it to do business, other than interstate commerce, in the latter state. 120 Tenn. 86. The ground of the decree is that the corporation and certain named agents entered into an arrangement for the purpose and with the effect of lessening competition in the sale of oil at Gallatin, Tennessee, and with the further result of advancing the price of oil there. The acts proved against the corporation were held to entail the ouster under a statute of Tennessee. Act of March 16, 1903. The corporation brings the case here on the contentions that the statute, as construed by the court, is contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, and also is an unconstitutional interference with commerce among the states. chanrobles.com-red

Page 217 U. S. 420

The basis of the former contention is that, by § 3 of the act, any violation of it is made a crime, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both, and that this section has been construed as applicable only to natural persons. Standard Oil Co. v. State, 117 Tenn. 618. Hence, it is said, this statute denies to corporations the equal protection of the laws. For although it is addressed generally to the prevention of a certain kind of conduct, whether on the part of corporations or unincorporated men, the latter cannot be tried without a preliminary investigation by a grand jury, an indictment or presentment, a trial by jury, the right to an acquittal unless their guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt, and the benefit of a statute of limitations of one year. Corporations, on the other hand, are proceeded against by bill in equity on relation of the attorney general, without any of these advantages, except, perhaps, the right to a jury. Complaint is not made of the difference between fine or imprisonment and ouster, but it is insisted that this is a general criminal statute, that ouster is a punishment as much as a fine, and that it is not a condition attached to the doing of business by foreign corporations, Carroll v. Greenwich Insurance Co., 199 U. S. 401, 199 U. S. 409, or, indeed, a regulation of the conduct of corporations, as such at all. Therefore the plaintiff in error complains that it is given a wrongful immunity from the procedure of the criminal law. This suit is for the same transaction for which, in the earlier case cited above, an agent of the company was indicted and fined.

The foregoing argument is one of the many attempts to construe the Fourteenth Amendment as introducing a factitious equality without regard to practical differences that are best met by corresponding differences of treatment. The law of Tennessee sees fit to seek to prevent a certain kind of conduct. To prevent it, the threat of fine and imprisonment is likely to be efficient for men, while the latter is impossible and the former less serious to corporations. On the other hand, the threat of extinction or ouster is not chanrobles.com-red

Page 217 U. S. 421

monstrous, and yet is likely to achieve the result with corporations, while it would be extravagant as applied to men. Hence, this difference is admitted to be justifiable. But the admission goes far to destroy the argument that is made. For if a fundamental distinction may be made in the evils that different delinquents are forced to suffer, surely the less important and ancient distinction between the modes of establishing the delinquency, according to the nature of the evil inflicted, even more easily may be justified. The supreme court of the state says that the present proceeding is of a civil nature; but assuming that nevertheless it ends in punishment, there is nothing novel or unusual about it. We are of opinion that subjection to it, with its concomitant advantages and disadvantages, is not an inequality of which the plaintiff in error can complain, although natural persons are given the benefit of the rules to which we have referred before incurring the possible sentence to prison, which the plaintiff in error escapes.

The second objection to the statute is that, although construed by the court to apply to domestic business only, nevertheless it is held to warrant turning the defendant out of the state for an interference with interstate trade. The transaction complained of was inducing merchants in Gallatin to revoke orders on a rival company for oil to be shipped from Pennsylvania by an agreement to give them 300 gallons of oil. It is said that, as the only illegal purpose that can be attributed to this agreement is that of protecting the defendants' oil against interstate competition, it could not be made the subject of punishment by the state; that the offense, if any, is against interstate commerce alone.

The cases that have gone as far as any in favor of this proposition are those that hold invalid taxes upon sales by traveling salesmen so far as they affect commerce among the states. Robbins v. Shelby County Taxing District, 120 U. S. 489; Rearick v. Pennsylvania, 203 U. S. 507. These cases fall short of the conclusion to which they are supposed to chanrobles.com-red

Page 217 U. S. 422

point. Regulations of the kind that they deal with concern the commerce itself, the conduct of the men engaged in it, and as so engaged. The present statute deals with the conduct of third persons, strangers to the business. It does not regulate the business at all. It is not even directed against interference with that business specifically, but against acts of a certain kind that the state disapproves in whatever connection. The mere fact that it may happen to remove an interference with commerce among the states as well with the rest does not invalidate it. It hardly would be an answer to an indictment for forgery that the instrument forged was a foreign bill of lading, or for assault and battery that the person assaulted was engaged in peddling goods from another state. How far Congress could deal with such cases we need not consider, but certainly there is nothing in the present state of the law, at least, that excludes the states from a familiar exercise of their power. See Field v. Barber Asphalt Co., 194 U. S. 618, 194 U. S. 623.

There is an attempt also to bring this case within the statute of limitations. It was permissible for the corporation to contend that it was discriminated against unconstitutionally by being excluded from that defense, and we have dealt with the argument that it was so. But the scope of the state statutes was for the state court to determine, and is not open here.

Decree affirmed.


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