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Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon

Law Dictionary
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Law Dictionary

Featuring Black's Law Dictionary 2nd Ed.
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Constitutional Law Keyed to Stone

Citation. 260 U.S. 393, 43 S. Ct. 158, 67 L. Ed. 322 (1922)

Brief Fact Summary. A Pennsylvania law deprived a coal company of rights to mining the company had obtained by contract with another private party. The constitutionality of the State’s undermining a private contract was called into question by Plaintiff Mahon, who claimed that the application of the Pennsylvania law

Synopsis of Rule of Law. While property may be regulated to a certain extent, if the regulation goes too far, it will be recognized as a taking.


Facts. The Pennsylvania Kohler Act (the “Act”) forbade the mining of coal in such a way as to cause land used for human habitation to sink. Prior to the enactment of the Act, the Pennsylvania Coal Company (“Defendant”) was mining underneath Plaintiff’s house thereby causing his house and the surface underneath it to subside. Defendant was mining pursuant to a contract entered into by the parties, conveying the surface of the land to Plaintiff but the right to remove all of the coal underneath the same to the Defendant. Plaintiff alleged that the Act applied to contracts executed before the Act’s enactment and thus barred Defendant from exercising its mining rights under its contract. The Plaintiff sued the Coal Co. to prevent the mining of coal under the Plaintiff’s house in such a way as to remove the supports and cause the house to subsist. The Plaintiff contends that whatever the Defendant’s rights were with respect to the coal underneath the surface, the Kohler Act has taken Defe
ndant’s rights away. The lower state court found that the Kohler Act was not constitutional as applied to this Defendant even though the potential injury claimed by Plaintiff is the type of injury the Kohler Act seeks to prevent. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the Defendant did have contract and property rights which were protected by the Constitution of the United States, but held that the Kohler Act was constitutional as a legitimate exercise of the police power by the state and directed a decree for Plaintiff. Defendant appealed.

Issue. Was the Act, as applied to previously existing contracts, a proper use of the State’s Police Powers?

Held. No. Decree Reversed.
The protection of private property in the Fifth Amendment presupposes that there are circumstances where the property is needed for public use, but it also provides that such property shall not be taken without compensation. The fact that this protection of property can be qualified in the name of a state exercising its Police Powers encourages the states to attempt to expand their Police Powers more and more until all private property is gone. But, the United States Constitution will not permit this. A strong public desire to improve public conditions is not enough to justify achieving that desire by a taking an end run around the Constitution by not paying for the improvement.
The State went too far here. Whether a State’s action rises to the level of a taking under the Fifth Amendment such that just compensation is required is a matter of degree and therefore cannot be answered by a general proposition.

Dissent. Justice Brandeis: A regulation enacted to protect the public health, safety or morals from threatened dangers is not a taking. The Act merely proscribed a noxious use. The restricted property remains in the possession of its owner. The State has not appropriated it or made any use of it.

Discussion. This case makes clear that there are no bright lines between government regulation of private property that rises to the level of a taking and that which does not. The Supreme Court of the United States in this case decided that a taking occurred based on the extent of the regulation (as opposed to the nature). The Supreme Court does not seem to take into account the importance of the governmental interest here in deciding whether there has been a taking.

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