ArtI.S10.C1.6.11 Corporation Subject to the Law and Police Power

Article I, Section 10, Clause 1:

No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

But suppose that the state neglects to reserve the right to amend, alter, or repeal. Is it, then, without power to control its corporate creatures? By no means. Private corporations, like other private persons, are always presumed to be subject to the legislative power of the state, from which it follows that immunities conferred by charter are to be treated as exceptions to an otherwise controlling rule. This principle was recognized by Chief Justice Marshall in Providence Bank v. Billings, 1 which held that, in the absence of express stipulation or reasonable implication to the contrary in its charter, the bank was subject to the state's taxing power, notwithstanding that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

And of course the same principle is equally applicable to the exercise by the state of its police powers. Thus, in what was perhaps the leading case before the Civil War, the Supreme Court of Vermont held that the legislature of that state had the right, in furtherance of the public safety, to require chartered companies operating railways to fence in their tracks and provide cattle guards. In a matter of this nature, said the court, corporations are on a level with individuals engaged in the same business, unless, from their charter, they can prove the contrary. 2 Since then the rule has been applied many times in justification of state regulation of railroads, 3 and even of the application of a state prohibition law to a company that had been chartered expressly to manufacture beer. 4


  1.  29 U.S. (4 Pet.) 514 (1830).
  2.  Thorpe v. Rutland & Burlington R.R., 27 Vt. 140 (1854).
  3.  Thus a railroad may be required, at its own expense and irrespective of benefits to itself, to eliminate grade crossings in the interest of the public safety, New York & N.E. R.R. v. Bristol, 151 U.S. 556 (1894), to make highway crossings reasonably safe and convenient for public use, Great Northern Ry. v. Minnesota ex rel. Clara City, 246 U.S. 434 (1918), to repair viaducts, Northern Pacific Railway v. Duluth, 208 U.S. 583 (1908), and to fence its right of way, Minneapolis & St. Louis Ry. v. Emmons, 149 U.S. 364 (1893). Though a railroad company owns the right of way along a street, the city may require it to lay tracks to conform to the established grade; to fill in tracks at street intersections; and to remove tracks from a busy street intersection, when the attendant disadvantage and expense are small and the safety of the public appreciably enhanced Denver & R.G. R.R. v. Denver, 250 U.S. 241 (1919).

    Likewise the state, in the public interest, may require a railroad to reestablish an abandoned station, even though the railroad commission had previously authorized its abandonment on condition that another station be established elsewhere, a condition which had been complied with. Railroad Co. v. Hamersley, 104 U.S. 1 (1881). It may impose upon a railroad liability for fire communicated by its locomotives, even though the state had previously authorized the company to use said type of locomotive power, St. Louis & S.F. Ry. v. Mathews, 165 U.S. 1, 5 (1897), and it may penalize the failure to cut drains through embankments so as to prevent flooding of adjacent lands. Chicago & Alton R.R. v. Tranbarger, 238 U.S. 67 (1915).

  4.  Beer Co. v. Massachusetts, 97 U.S. 25 (1878). See also Fertilizing Co. v. Hyde Park, 97 U.S. 659 (1878); Hammond Packing Co. v. Arkansas, 212 U.S. 322, 345 (1909).