South Covington Ry. Co. v. Kentucky, 252 U.S. 399 (1920)

Author: Justice McKenna

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South Covington Ry. Co. v. Kentucky, 252 U.S. 399 (1920)

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Railway Company was indicted for a violation of a statute of Kentucky which required companies or persons running or operating railroads in the state to furnish separate coaches or cars for white and colored passengers.

The statute, as far as we are concerned with it, is as follows: all corporations, companies or persons

engaged in running or operating railroads, of this state, either in part or whole, either in their own name or that of others, are hereby required to furnish separate coaches or cars for the travel or transportation of the white and colored passengers on their respective lines of railroad. Each compartment of a coach divided by a good and substantial wooden partition, with a door therein, shall be deemed a separate coach within the meaning of this act, and each separate coach or compartment shall bear in some conspicuous place appropriate words in plain letters indicating the race for which it is set apart.

Ky.Stats. § 795.

It is also provided that there shall be no difference or discrimination in the quality of the coaches or cars. A violation of the act is made a misdemeanor.

Interurban electric railroads are subject to the above provisions. We may say in passing that the railway company denies that it is interurban, but admits that the fact has been decided against it, and accepts the ruling. It will be considered, therefore, as interurban, and, being so, it was within the law and the charge of the indictment. The charge is that it (the company) at the time designated

then and there had authority and was authorized to operate a line of railroad ten miles in length between Covington and Erlanger and beyond through and by means of its control, ownership, and lease of and from the Cincinnati, Covington & Erlanger Railway Company, a corporation organized under the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, an interurban railroad company authorized to construct and operate an electric railroad ten miles in length in this county between Covington and Erlanger and beyond, and incorporated under the general railroad laws of this commonwealth, said defendant then and there operating said line of railroad, the construction of which by the Cincinnati, Covington & Erlanger Railway Company had theretofore been authorized.

And, having such authority and control of the line of railroad, the company violated the law of the state by not observing its requirement as to separate coaches.

The defense to the action was, and the contention here is, not that the facts charged are not true, but that the statute, so far as it is attempted to be made applicable to the company, is an interference with interstate commerce, and that the defense was made in the trial court in a motion to dismiss and for a new trial and also in the Court of Appeals.

In support of the contention, it is stated that the company’s principal business was interstate commerce -- the carriage of passengers between Cincinnati and the Kentucky cities across the Ohio River; that the car in question was an ordinary single truck street car solely engaged in interstate trips from Cincinnati, Ohio, through Covington, Kentucky, and a suburb about five miles distant, and that eighty percent of the passengers carried were interstate.

The reply made by the state, and expressed by the Court of Appeals, to the contention is that the railway company is a Kentucky corporation, and by its charter was given authority "to construct, operate and manage street railways in the City of Covington and vicinity," "and along such streets and public highways in the city as the council shall grant the right of way to," "and along such roads or streets out of the city as the companies or corporations owning the same may cede the right to the use of." And further

it may at any time, by agreement, purchase, lease, consolidate with, acquire, hold or operate any other street railway, or intersect therein, in Covington, Cincinnati, Newport, or vicinity,


The Court of Appeals further declared that the railway company became in some way the owner of all of the stocks of the Cincinnati, Covington & Erlanger Railway Company, and that the corporations are operated under the same general management, and

that the elder corporation, operating in the name of the junior, actually constructed its road, and has been operating it from the beginning, being the owner of the cars which are operated upon the road. The motive power is electricity, and is the property of the elder corporation, the cars upon the road are such as are ordinarily used upon street railroads, and such as the elder corporation uses upon the street railroads of its system. A fare of five cents is charged for passage from any point upon the road of the Cincinnati, Covington & Erlanger Company, to any point on the system of the South Covington & Cincinnati Street Railway Company, and from one point to another upon the entire system of the latter company, and transfers are given for all connecting lines. Many persons who take passage upon the line of the Cincinnati, Covington & Erlanger Railway Company at its terminus, near Erlanger, and at other places along its lines are transported without change of cars into Cincinnati, in the State of Ohio, as it connects with the lines of the South Covington & Cincinnati Street Railway Company at its terminus, in the City of Covington.

Separate coaches were not provided as required by the law.

These being the facts, the Court of Appeals decided that there was no interference with or regulation of interstate commerce. "Each of the termini," the court said, "as well as all the stations of the Cincinnati, Covington & Erlanger Railway Company’s road is within the State of Kentucky." And it was concluded that "the offense charged and for which the" railway was

convicted was the operation of the railroad in an unlawful manner within the state and in violation of one of the measures enacted under the police powers of the state.

In answer to, and in resistance to, the conclusion of the court, the railway company contends that it operates a railway between designated termini, one being in Kentucky and the other in Ohio; that the price of a fare may be the single one of five cents for the complete trip in the same coach taken at or terminating at the respective termini, and that therefore the car and passenger are necessarily interstate. Thus viewed, they undoubtedly are, but there are other considerations. There was a distinct operation in Kentucky, an operation authorized and required by the charters of the companies, and it is that operation the act in question regulates, and does no more, and therefore is not a regulation of interstate commerce. This is the effect of the ruling in South Covington Railway v. Covington, 235 U.S. 537. The regulation of the act affects interstate business incidentally, and does not subject it to unreasonable demands.

The cited case points out the equal necessity, under our system of government, to preserve the power of the states within their sovereignties as to prevent the power from intrusive exercise within the national sovereignty, and an interurban railroad company deriving its powers from the state, and subject to obligations under the laws of the state, should not be permitted to exercise the powers given by the state and escape its obligations to the state under the circumstances presented by this record by running its coaches beyond the state lines. But we need not extend the discussion. The cited case expresses the principle of decision, and marks the limitation upon the power of a state and when its legislation is or is not an interference with interstate commerce. And, regarding its principle, we think, as we have said, the act in controversy does not transcend that limitation.

Judgment affirmed.


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Chicago: McKenna, "McKenna, J., Lead Opinion," South Covington Ry. Co. v. Kentucky, 252 U.S. 399 (1920) in 252 U.S. 399 252 U.S. 401–252 U.S. 404. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2023,

MLA: McKenna. "McKenna, J., Lead Opinion." South Covington Ry. Co. v. Kentucky, 252 U.S. 399 (1920), in 252 U.S. 399, pp. 252 U.S. 401–252 U.S. 404. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: McKenna, 'McKenna, J., Lead Opinion' in South Covington Ry. Co. v. Kentucky, 252 U.S. 399 (1920). cited in 1920, 252 U.S. 399, pp.252 U.S. 401–252 U.S. 404. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2023, from