Selected Papers of Homer Cummings, Attorney General of the United States, 1933-1939

By Homer S. Cummings; Carl Brent Swisher | Go to book overview

10. The Public Utility Holding Company Act

[The Public Utility Holding Company Act of August 26, 1935, was proposed to prevent the continuation of abuses disclosed during the early years of the depression by the collapse of holding company mushroom structures such as the Insull domain, and similar abuses frequently disclosed when effective regulation of public utilities was attempted. After the measure was proposed in Congress the first time, it was submitted to the Department of Justice for revision of its language. After its adoption, a number of equity suits were instituted against the Securities and Exchange Commission to prevent the enforcement of the requirement of registration under the act. The Department of Justice issued circulars to United States attorneys indicating that the policy of the government was not to enforce immediately all the penal provisions of the act, but rather to find and advance as rapidly as possible a test case on constitutionality. A case against the Electric Bond & Share Company was chosen for the test.

Other utilities nevertheless sought to embarrass the government by injunction suits. The Attorney General arranged, contrary to custom, to appear in person in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to ask a stay of proceedings in these cases, pending the determination of the test case. In explaining his position to the court, he said that it would be cruelty to his legal staff and, indeed, a physically impossible task for the government to combat simultaneously every one of the barrage of injunction suits that had been filed. "Suits have rained upon us from every spot in the zenith," he declared. "We are literally submerged by them. No just purpose has been served by any one of them. * * * I am willing to take on any gentlemen, but I want to take them on one at a time. Even the pugilistic champion of the world would be unwilling to meet a whole ring full of opponents in one match." The court granted the stay. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, however, before which the Attorney General also appeared, reversed the decision by a vote of two to one (see North American Company v. Landis, 85 F. (2d) 398); but the Supreme Court of the United States in a carefully limited opinion on December 7, 1936, reversed the Court of Appeals ( Landis v. North American Company, 299 U. S. 248), call-

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