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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Potter Law (1874)

Definition:

The first effort by the state to regulate railroads; litigation by the railroads ultimately established the right of government to regulate business. From Wisconsin: comprising sketches of counties, towns, events, institutions, and persons, arranged in cyclopedic form, ed. by Ex-Gov. Geo. W. Peck (Madison, 1906):

"In 1873 the Granger movement (q.v.) in Wisconsin had reached such proportions that it entered politics and in the fall of that year in coalition with the Democrats and the liquor interests elected a full state ticket, with Wm. R. Taylor, a farmer of Dane county and a prominent member of the Grange, as governor. The legislature of 1874 under Governor Taylor's advice passed a stringent railroad supervision law, chapter 273, and known as the Potter law from the name of the man who introduced it. This law was a very comprehensive one. It classified the railroads on the basis of business done, classified freights, fixed maximum rates for both passengers and freight, provided for the appointment of a railroad commission of three members, gave justices of the peace concurrent jurisdiction with circuit courts in hearing complaints and trying cases growing out of a violation of the law, gave the commissioners the right to examine books of the railroad companies, specified what information roads should give in their reports -¿ very similiar to the schedule prepared by the interstate commerce commission 15 years later, -¿ gave the commission power to reduce rates, and gave to the plaintiff the right to recover from the railway company three times the excess amount collected from him.

"Within two months after its passage, the presidents of the C., M. & St. P. and the C. & N. W. Rys notified the governor that they would disregard the law, which they considered unconstitutional on the ground that it destroyed the earning power of the roads. On May 16 the state authorities filed information against the two companies named, in the supreme court, charging them with violating laws passed for railroad regulation. The court granted the attorney general right to bring an action in the nature of a quo warranto in the supreme court to annul the charters of the defendant roads. On June 1 the creditors of the railroads appealed to the U. S. district court for an injunction restraining the state authorities from enforcing the law on the ground that it weakened the securities of the roads. On July 6 the Federal court, in which Judges Davis, Drummond and Hopkins presided, gave its decision sustaining the validity of the law and maintaining the power of the legislature as arbiter of the question of rates from point to point within the state. On July 8 the supreme court of the state was petitioned to enjoin the roads from further violation of the law. On Sept. 15 the supreme court gave its decision fully sustaining the law and the right of the state to control corporations, and the roads were given until Oct. 1 to arrange their schedules in accordance with the law. The Potter law was repealed by the legislature of 1876, but the right of the legislature to regulate railway rates was considered to have been judicially established."

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[Source: Wisconsin: comprising sketches of counties, towns, events, institutions, and persons, arranged in cyclopedic form, ed. by Ex-Gov. Geo. W. Peck (Madison, Wis., Western Historical Association, 1906). ]
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