Norton v. Shelby County
118 U.S. 425 (1886)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Norton v. Shelby County, 118 U.S. 425 (1886)

Norton v. Shelby County

Argued March 24-25, 1886

Decided May 10, 1886

118 U.S. 425

Syllabus

This Court follows the decisions of the highest court of a state in construing the constitution and laws of the state unless they conflict with or impair the efficacy of some principle of the federal Constitution or of a federal statute or a rule of commercial or general law.

The decisions of state courts on questions relating to the existence of its subordinate tribunals and the eligibility and election or appointment of their officers and the passage of its laws are conclusive upon federal courts.

Page 118 U. S. 426

Following the decision of the highest court of the Tennessee in Pope v. Phifer, 3 Heiskell 691, and other cases, this Court holds that the Board of Commissioners of Shelby County, organized under the Act of March 9, 1867, had no lawful existence; that it was an unauthorized and illegal body; that its members were usurpers of the functions and powers of the justices of peace of the county; that their action in holding a county court was void, and that their acts in subscribing to the stock of the Mississippi River Railroad Company and issuing bonds in payment therefor were void.

While acts of a de facto incumbent of an office lawfully created by law and existing are often held to be binding from reasons of public policy, the acts of a person assuming to fill and perform the duties of an office which does not exist de jure can have no validity whatever in law.

An unconstitutional act is not a law; it confers no rights; it imposes no duties; it affords no protection; it creates no office; it is in legal contemplation as inoperative as though it had never been passed.

The action of a minority of the justices of the peace of the County Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, prior to May 5, 1870, did not operate as a ratification by the county court of the previously invalid subscription of the county to stock in the Mississippi River Railroad Company, and on and after that day, on which the new Constitution of Tennessee took effect, no ratification could be made without previous assent of three-fourths of the voters of the county.

This suit was brought to enforce payment of twenty-nine bonds for $1,000 each issued by the Board of Commissioners of Shelby County in payment of a subscription by the county to stock in the Mississippi River Railroad Company. The form of the bond appears in the opinion of the Court, post, p. 118 U. S. 434.

On the 25th February, 1867, the county court of any county through which that railroad might run was authorized to subscribe to its capital stock. Laws of 1866-1867, page 131, c. 48, § 6, [Footnote 1]

Page 118 U. S. 427

which power was enlarged November 5, 1867, Private Acts 1867-8, 5. [Footnote 2]

On the 7th day of the following March, the legislature reorganized the City of Memphis, and enacted that the powers theretofore vested in the Quarterly Court should be vested in a Board of Commissioners created by that act. Acts of 1867-1868, c. 46, �� 21, 25. [Footnote 3]

This act was subsequently held by the Supreme Court of Tennessee to be unconstitutional and invalid, and the board created by it to have had no legal existence. The board, however, before it was so held had organized and had performed the functions of the County Court until November, 1869, and, among other things, had subscribed in the name of the county to stock of the Mississippi River Railroad Company and had issued bonds in payment therefor, of which bonds those in suit were part. It had received certificates of stock in

Page 118 U. S. 428

exchange for its bonds, and had and has since exercised its rights as a stockholder.

Before the Board of Commissioners abdicated, they ordered taxes to be levied to pay these bonds, and the justices of the peace, upon resuming functions, received the money collected on the tax and paid the interest on the bonds and paid the principal bonds maturing. This was continued, and thus a large amount of interest has been paid on the bonds, and a large part of the principal has also been paid, since the County Court resumed its functions.

On the 5th May, 1870, a new constitution came into force in Tennessee, which contained the following provisions:

"But the credit of no county, city, or town shall be given or loaned to or in aid of any person, company, association or corporation, except upon an election to be first held by the qualified voters of such county, city, or town, and the assent of three-fourths of the votes cast at said election, nor shall any county, city, or town become a stockholder with others in any company, association, or corporation except upon a like election and the assent of a like majority."

"All laws and ordinances now in force and in use in this state not inconsistent with the constitution shall continue in force and use until they expire or be altered or repealed by the legislature. But ordinances contained in any former constitution or schedule thereto are hereby abrogated."

A large part of the payments of principal and interest above referred to was made after this constitution came into force.

The court below ordered a verdict for the county, and from the judgment entered on such verdict this writ of error was taken.

Page 118 U. S. 434

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