West River Bridge Co. v. Dix

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6 How. (47 U.S.) 507 (1848), argued 5–7 Jan. 1848, decided 31 Jan. 1848 by vote of 7 to 1. Daniel for the Court, McLean and Woodbury concurring, Wayne in dissent, McKinley not participating. In West River Bridge Co. the Supreme Court established that the exercise of eminent domain power to extinguish a franchise did not violate the Contract Clause. In 1795 the Vermont legislature invested a corporation with the exclusive privilege of maintaining a toll bridge over West River for one hundred years. The state subsequently decided to lay out a free public highway over the toll bridge. The bridge company was awarded compensation for the appropriation of its property and franchise. The bridge company, however, objected that the state proceeding violated the Contract Clause. Daniel Webster, appearing for the bridge company, contended that the state's action constituted an impairment of the grant to erect a toll bridge. He also argued that unrestrained use of eminent domain would allow the states despotic authority over private property.

Rejecting Webster's arguments, Justice Peter V. Daniel reasoned that all private property rights were subordinate to the paramount power of eminent domain. He emphasized that a franchise was simply a form of property. Daniel concluded that the exercise of eminent domain power did not abrogate any contractual rights protected by the Contract Clause. This decision established the principle that a grant or franchise does not divest a state of eminent domain authority and pointed the way for later rulings that a state cannot contract away certain police powers. As a result, states could use eminent domain broadly to promote public welfare.

James W. Ely, Jr.

Subjects: Law.

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