Ritchie v. Franklin County
89 U.S. 67

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ritchie v. Franklin County, 89 U.S. 22 Wall. 67 67 (1874)

Ritchie v. Franklin County

89 U.S. (22 Wall.) 67

Syllabus

l. Where a constitution of a state forbids special legislation, an act, demanded by considerations of high justice and by the fact that carelessness in the language of previous statutes has worked the necessity for the act, may be presumed to have been meant as a curative act, and as

Page 89 U. S. 68

applicable to a particular case as well as to all others similar, and this is true though the new act be couched in general words only.

2. In a state where, though a statute may require that no bonds be issued by counties to make roads unless the voters have approved the expenditure, there is nothing in the state constitution which forbids the legislature from conferring on counties the authority to borrow money for the purpose named without such approval, the legislature can confer on counties the power to borrow money to pay debts already contracted for this purpose without such consent.

3. The act of the Legislature of Missouri of March 21, 1868, to authorize county courts to issue bonds for the purpose of paying for the building of bridges and macadamized roads theretofore contracted to be built is valid under the constitution of the state whether the act be considered as an original act or as one merely curative.

Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, in which court one Ritchie filed a bill against Franklin County, in the said state, and various persons, holders of its bonds, such as are hereinafter described, to enjoin the county from collecting a special tax levied to pay the interest on the said bonds and to compel the holders of them to surrender them for cancellation, he, Ritchie, the complainant, alleging that by the Constitution of Missouri the same were unconstitutional and void.

The case was thus: the Constitution of Missouri ordains,

"Article 1. No law retrospective in its operation can be passed."

"Article 4. The General Assembly shall not pass special laws, . . . establishing, locating, altering the course or affecting the construction of roads or the repairing or building of bridges or legalizing, except as against the state, the unauthorized or invalid acts of any officer."

"The General Assembly shall pass no special law for any case for which provision can be made by a general law, but shall pass general laws providing so far as it may deem necessary for the cases enumerated in this section and for all other cases where a general law can be made applicable."

"Inferior tribunals, to be known as county courts, shall be established in every county for the transaction of all county business."

These provisions of the state constitution being in force as fundamental law, the general assembly, February 16,

Page 89 U. S. 69

1865, passed an act empowering and authorizing the County Courts, for the purpose of opening and keeping in repair roads, and in order to raise the necessary funds to pay the expenses of any or all of said improvements, to borrow money on the credit of the county and to issue bonds of the same, "but," said the act,

"the said bonds shall not bear interest at a higher rate than six percent unless by agreement between the parties, nor shall said bonds, or any of them, be sold or disposed of at less than par value -- that is to say the amount called for on their face."

The act proceeded:

"SECTION 3. The said bonds may be made transferable in such a manner as the county court by its order may direct, and the courts shall be authorized to levy a sufficient amount of revenue annually to pay the accruing interest on said bonds, and for that purpose may, if it should be necessary, levy a special tax."

"SECTION 4. Before any expenditure shall be made by the county courts for the purposes contemplated by this act, the county courts may, for the purpose of information, submit the amount of the proposed expenditure to the voters of the respective counties, and if a majority of the voters shall approve of such proposed appropriation, then the court may proceed and improve the roads as herein contemplated. If a majority shall vote against such an appropriation, then nothing further shall be done therein within twelve months,"

&c. [Footnote 1]

Another act having provisions in words of the same effect was passed in 1866. In consequence of the act of 1865 declaring that the submission to the people of the amount of the proposed expenditure was "for the purpose of information," the County Court of Franklin construed the provision as leaving it to their discretion whether they would submit any such question to the people. And being now engaged in a general scheme for macadamizing the roads of the county and bridging the streams in it, the county court issued a quantity of bonds without submitting the matter to

Page 89 U. S. 70

the people in any way. The validity of the bonds being denied, the question whether they were valid or not came before the Supreme Court of Missouri in the case of Leavenworth & Des Moines Railroad Company v. County Court of Platte, [Footnote 2] where it was decided that the bonds were void.

Thereupon, the road having been now built, the assembly, on the 21st of March, 1868, passed a new act to authorize county courts to issue bonds for the purpose of paying for the building of bridges and macadamized roads heretofore contracted for and built.

This act thus enacted:

"SECTION 1. In all cases where county courts have heretofore laid out, surveyed, and commenced the building, and have built macadamized or other roads, or have . . . built bridges, or other necessary work in their respective counties, the county courts are hereby authorized to borrow money on the credit of the county and to issue bonds of the county with coupons attached &c.; but said bonds shall not . . . bear interest at a higher rate than ten percent for the purpose of paying for the work done and contracted for in their respective counties."

"SECTION 2. Said bonds may be made transferable in such manner as the county court may direct, and the courts shall be authorized to levy a sufficient amount of revenue annually to pay the accruing interest on bonds authorized by this act, and for that purpose may, if it be necessary, levy a special tax."

"SECTION 3. All acts or parts of acts inconsistent with this act are hereby repealed."

And on the 23d of March of the same year, it passed a new road law, in the main like the old one but with some modifications and making it plainly peremptory on the county courts to take a vote of the people before issuing bonds.

After the passage of the Act of March 21, 1868, the County Court of Franklin County entered an order on its records to issue bonds to the contractors to pay for the work

Page 89 U. S. 71

done on the road in question, and thereupon the former bonds were surrendered and cancelled, and a like number issued and purchased by the defendants in due course of business. These new bonds were made payable to the bearer, and purported on their face to have been issued by the County Court of Franklin County in pursuance of the act last above mentioned. Roads similar to the one for which these bonds were issued were building by the contractors who were building it, at the same time for the same county, and the defendants had no means of knowing whether the bonds they held were issued to pay for the particular road in controversy. They bought them in good faith for value without notice of any infirmity of title. The court below, holding the Act of 21st of March constitutional, dismissed the bill.

The question of the constitutionality of the act, it may be here added, had been before the Supreme Court of Missouri in a case between other parties, and that court held that the act conferred "original power" to issue the bonds without reference to previous or contemporary laws, and also that it was "curative" and legalized the unauthorized action of the county court and validated the new bonds issued.

The case came here on exceptions to the answer, and the question to be passed on was whether there was authority to issue the bonds in controversy. [Footnote 3]

Page 89 U. S. 74

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