Lombard v. West Chicago Park Comm'rs - 181 U.S. 33 (1901)


U.S. Supreme Court

Lombard v. West Chicago Park Comm'rs, 181 U.S. 33 (1901)

Lombard v. West Chicago Park Commissioners

No. 160

Argued January 31, 1901

Decided April 8, 1901

181 U.S. 33

Syllabus

The question whether the benefit accruing to each particular tract of real estate assessed by the park commissioners for the payment of the Douglas Boulevard equalled the sum of the assessment placed thereon was foreclosed by the findings of fact of the trial court, to which the case was submitted without the intervention of a jury.

Page 181 U. S. 34

The power of the Illinois to levy a special assessment in proportion to benefits for the execution of a local work, and the authority to confer on a municipality the attribute of providing for such an assessment, is not denied.

Where a special municipal assessment to pay for a particular work has been held to be illegal, no violation of the Constitution of the United States arises from a subsequent authority given to make a new special assessment to pay for the complete work.

The Supreme Court of Illinois decided a local, and not a federal, question when it held that it was competent on a new assessment to determine the questions of benefit from the proof, even though, in so doing, a different result was reached from that which had been arrived at when the former assessment, which had been set aside, was made.

The West Chicago Park Commissioners, in virtue of authority vested in them by the laws of the State of Illinois, proposing to improve Douglas Boulevard and requiring a special assessment to enable them to pay for the work, applied, as the law directed in such case, to the municipal authorities of West Chicago to cause such special assessment to be levied and collected according to law. In March, 1893, the town, acting on this request, adopted an ordinance providing for executing the work and for a special assessment on the abutting property to pay for the same. The only provision of this ordinance which it is essential to note for the purposes of the issues which are now before us is the second section thereof, which provided that the sum of the assessment, when made, should be payable in installments, the first being twenty percent of the whole, and the deferred portions to bear interest at a rate fixed in the ordinance. Following the requirements of the state laws, after the passage of this ordinance, application was made to the County Court of Cook County to take the necessary steps to execute the provisions of the ordinance. Pursuant to the directions of the Illinois statutes, the court appointed commissioners, who examined and made a full report on the work and exhibited an assessment roll stating the sum due by the abutting property, the amount assessed on each piece being stated to have been fixed in accordance with the benefits which it was ascertained would result to each piece from the performance of the contemplated work. After notice to those concerned to appear and urge objections, if any they had, to the assessment roll, and after due proceedings in which ample

Page 181 U. S. 35

opportunity was afforded to resist the assessment, the court passed a decree of confirmation fixing the amount due by each piece of property in accordance with the report of the commissioners and declaring that the sum assessed against each piece of property did not exceed the benefit conferred on the property. This decree, however, did not in all respects uphold the assessments made by the commissioners, as it sustained the objections of certain propertyholders on the ground that the sum assessed against them exceeded the benefits, and, as to these objecting property holders, the amount assessed was reduced to correspond with what the court concluded was the actual benefit shown to result. J. L. Lombard was the owner of a piece of property within the assessment district which had, it seems, been omitted from the roll returned by the commissioners. The decree recited that this property (describing it) had been by consent found to be within the district, and would be benefited to a certain amount, and the sum of this benefit was by consent awarded against the property as described. The assessment, the decree of confirmation provided, was to be paid in installments as specified.

The collection of the assessment proceeded according to the roll, and the execution of the proposed improvement was undertaken. Some of those who were assessed paid; others did not, and on proceedings' being taken as authorized by the laws of Illinois to enforce payment, a controversy arose which, in its final stage, was considered by the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois, and the court decided that the assessment was void, and could not be enforced. The reasoning by which the court so decided was this -- that, under the statutes of Illinois, there was no authority to provide for a payment of a special assessment in installments, and therefore, as the ordinance had fixed that method of payment, it was void. Culver v. The People, 161 Ill. 89. And the principle of this case was applied in subsequent cases. Farrell v. West Chicago, 162 Ill. 280; Connor v. West Chicago, 162 Ill. 287; White v. West Chicago, 164 Ill.196. The improvement had, in the meanwhile, been constructed. The West Chicago Park Commissioners, after the decisions in question,

Page 181 U. S. 36

dismissed the previous proceedings which had taken place in relation to the assessment. In July, 1895, an act was passed by the Legislature of Illinois which authorized park authorities, whenever a special assessment had been declared void by a court of competent jurisdiction, to

"collect a new special assessment on property benefited by said improvement, or completed portion thereof, in the same manner as in other cases, and the lots, blocks, tracts, or parcels of land found benefited by said improvements, or the completed portion thereof, shall each severally be liable to pay for said benefits to the same extent and the same proportion as in other cases."

Hurd's Statutes of Illinois, 1899, c. 105, sec. 20, p. 1244.

After the passage of this law, the West Chicago Park Commissioners, in July, 1896, adopted an ordinance providing an assessment to pay for the work of improving Douglas Boulevard, which had been completed as above stated. The first section of the ordinance, by way of preamble, recited the occurrences substantially as above stated. The second and third sections were as follows:

"SEC. 2. That a new special assessment on the property benefited by said improvement, to the amount that the same may be legally assessed for, be levied to pay the cost of said boulevard improvement above specified, and the remainder of such cost be paid by general taxation -- viz., from the general funds of this board, all in accordance with an act of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois, entitled 'An Act to Enable the Park Commissioners or Park Authorities to Make Local Improvements, and Provide for the Payment thereof,' approved June 24 and in force July 1, 1895."

"SEC. 3. That the estimate of the cost of the said improvement be made by this commission and spread of record."

Subsequently the Park Commissioners made an estimate and report, and application was made to the County Court of Cook County for the enforcement of an assessment roll prepared by the Park Commissioners in accordance with the estimate. This roll stated the total amount of the cost of the work, and charged the individual proprietors in the aggregate with a large portion of the total amount because of the special benefits conferred by

Page 181 U. S. 37

the work upon them; the remainder -- an insignificant part -- of the cost was charged to the public, because of the general benefit to the public which it was found had been produced by the doing of the work. The sum charged against the individual propertyholders was distributed among them, and this distribution was shown by a statement containing the name of the owners, the lot owned by him, the total amount of the assessment, the sum to be deducted from this total in consequence of the installments which had been paid on the former and void assessment, the net result of the benefit after making this deduction being stated in a separate column. To this roll was appended the certificate of the Park Commissioners, as required by law, that --

"Before entering upon their said duties, they examined the locality where the said completed improvement has been made, and the lots, blocks, tracts, and portions of land which are specially benefited thereby, and did estimate what proportion of the total cost of said completed improvement is of benefit to the public, and what proportion thereof is of benefit to the property benefited, and did apportion the same between the said park district and such property, so that each should bear its relative equitable portion; . . . that, having found said amounts they did apportion and assess the amount so found of benefit to said property upon the several lots, blocks, tracts, and parcels of land in the proportion in which they are benefited by said completed improvement, and that no lot, block, tract, or parcel of land has been assessed the greater amount than it has been actually benefited thereby; that said assessment roll also shows the credit to which each lot, block, tract of land so specially assessed is entitled to, if any, for or on account of payments on previous assessments or installments thereof, and the net amount of benefits assessed thereon."

The amount of the assessment against the individual lot owners for benefits in the new roll differed from the sum assessed in the previous one. Indeed, the new roll disregarded the reductions which had been decreed in the previous proceedings as to certain of the lot owners, since it increased the amount due by these owners over the sum fixed by the previous decree.

Page 181 U. S. 38

The property of Lombard, which had been placed upon the previous roll by consent at a particular amount, was placed upon the new roll for a larger sum than that shown in the previous roll. After publication of notice of the filing of the roll, the present plaintiffs in error appeared in the County Court of Cook County and objected to the confirmation of the roll. The objections which were urged were numbered from 1 to 18, and denied the validity of the new roll upon many grounds, all of which involved purely matters of local and nonfederal concern. They subsequently filed a motion to cancel the assessment on eight specified grounds, none of which involved the Constitution or laws of the United States. And this is also true of amended objections which were filed. Later, additional objections were filed, numbered from 1 to 5. The first charged, in general terms, that the assessment and the proceeding to confirm the same were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States; the second that as the proceeding was not authorized by any valid ordinance at the time the work was done, to confirm the assessment under the assumption that it was sustained by the act of 1895 would be a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States; the third charged that, as the ordinance under which the previous assessment was made had been held to be void, there was no authority for doing the work at the time when it was done, and hence to enforce the subsequent ordinance would also violate the Fourteenth Amendment; the fourth but reiterated that as the work was completed before the Illinois act of 1895 had been passed, to construe that law as authorizing the assessment would also violate the Constitution of the United States, and the fifth repeated in different form the same proposition by asserting that the law of 1895, if held to be retroactively applicable to the work which had been completed at the time of its passage, would be repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

On the hearing, by objections to evidence, by motions to strike out, and by additional pleadings, the grounds above stated were repeated, but were all overruled. Following this, it is stated in the bill of exceptions --

Page 181 U. S. 39

"And thereupon all the said motions and legal objections having been disposed of, the said cause came on to be tried upon the objections triable by a jury, and thereupon it was stipulated in open court by the petitioners and by said objectors that the said cause should be submitted to the court for trial without a jury upon the said issues, and upon the same evidence in all respects which has been offered upon the said motions and legal objections as hereinbefore set forth, without recalling witnesses or introducing or recalling or offering the said testimony, the same to be treated as having been offered upon the said issues, which was all the evidence offered on the said hearing. And thereupon the objectors contended that it was shown by the said evidence that the property of the said objectors and each of them, severally, was assessed more than its proportionate share of the cost of the said improvement; but said objections were overruled, and the court found the issues for the petitioners. . . ."

The decree which was entered expressly found that in each particular case, the property assessed was benefited to the sum of the assessment. An appeal was taken from this decree to the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois, and on such appeal, errors were assigned numbered from 1 to 20. They repeated in various forms of statement all the objections of a federal nature which had been previously urged and asserted, besides a number of grounds of purely local concern. The Supreme Court of Illinois decided that, although it was settled by a course of decisions in that state that there must exist authority for making a special assessment at the time the levy was made and before the work was done, yet the original ordinance under which the first assessment, which had been declared illegal, was made afforded such an authority. Construing its former opinions, the court said that, whilst it had declared the previous assessment to be void because it provided for a payment in installments contrary to the state statutes, nevertheless the ordinance, to the extent that it directed an assessment, remained, albeit it had been held that the provision as to payment by installments could not be enforced. The court then reviewed all the various objections to the form of the assessment, and held them to be without merit.

Page 181 U. S. 40

It, moreover, decided that as the previous assessment had been set aside because of the installment feature, that the sums fixed therein were not conclusive, and on the new assessment it was competent to reexamine the question of benefits and to restate the amounts due, even although, in doing so, it was ascertained that a larger sum was assessable upon some portions of the property than had been decreed by the order which confirmed the previous assessment. As to the property of Lombard, the court decided that the proof established that a change in condition had caused the property to be justly assessed for a larger property to be benefit than had been attributed to it by consent in the first assessment. 181 Ill. 136. To this decision the present writ of error is prosecuted.



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