In determining whether a statute is a local act of the nature
prohibited by the Constitution, the legislature will not be
supposed to be less faithful to its obligations than the court.
A local law means one that in fact, even if not in form, is
directed only to a specific spot.
A law is not necessarily a local law because it happens to
affect a particular spot.
The law of New Mexico Territory requiring that changes of county
seats shall not be made under certain conditions is not violative
of the Act of 1886 prohibiting the Territory from passing local
laws because those conditions happen to apply to certain
In determining questions from the territories not based on
federal law, this Court inclines towards following the local
courts, Treat v. Grand Canyon Ry. Co., 222 U.
, and so held
as to questions relating to
the passage of an act of the legislature of the territory.
Following the supreme court of the territory, held
the act of the legislature was properly passed, and the petition
for change of county seat, and the ballots were not irregular.
A statute requiring the appointment for certain elections of a
registration board sixty days before election does not apply to a
special election ordered by a subsequent act to take place within
sixty days after presentation of a petition.
15 N.M 742 and 16 N.M. 467 affirmed.
The facts are stated in the opinion.
Page 227 U. S. 55
MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.
The first of these suits is a bill in equity brought by
taxpayers to restrain the County Commissioners of Lincoln County
from erecting a courthouse and jail in the Town of Carrizozo, the
board assuming that the county seat has been changed from Lincoln
to that town. The second is a quo warranto
at the relation
of a taxpayer against the same board to stop the same and other
proceedings taken by the board on the same ground. The supreme
court of the territory affirmed a decree dismissing the bill, and
also a judgment denying the quo warranto.
15 N.M. 742, 16
N.M. 467. Both cases raised the question whether the attempted
change of the county seat was void, and turn on the same facts,
which may be stated in connection with the several objections that
the appellants take.
In the first place, it is said that the statute under which the
attempted change took place is void because it is a local law, and
the Act of Congress of July 30, 1886, c. 818, § 1, 24 Stat. 170,
provides that the legislature of the territory shall not pass local
or special laws in the matter, among others, of changing county
seats. The statute, being c. 80 of the Laws of New Mexico of 1909,
is thought to be local because, by § 2, it enacts that the place to
which it is proposed to remove the county seat "shall be at least
twenty miles distant from the then county seat of said county," and
that no proposition to remove a county seat from a place situated
on a railroad to one not so situated shall be entertained. It is
argued at great length, and is obvious, that, at any given time,
this enactment does not bear in the same way on every part of the
Page 227 U. S. 56
In its present form, the statute may be specially favorable to
the change from Lincoln to Carrizozo if, as is said, the latter
town is on a railroad and Lincoln is not. It may be admitted that a
local act could be disguised in general terms if a legislature
would condescend to evading its duties under a constitution or
organic act. It may be assumed that general words are not
necessarily enough to disguise such an intent. But it is not
lightly to be supposed that a legislature is less faithful to its
obligations than a court. General words indicate and affirm a
general intent, and if the fact that different sections are
differently affected is enough to make a law local, the field of
legislation would be narrowed beyond anything that Congress could
have dreamed. It cannot have been intended, for instance, that no
laws should be passed concerning cities or towns, yet such laws
would be local in their application. The phrase "local law" means,
primarily at least, a law that in fact, if not in form, is directed
only to a specific spot. If it has a wider meaning, it involves
questions of degree that cannot be decided by putting cases other
than the one before us. We know nothing that would warrant us in
declaring that this law was not intended, according to its purport,
to regulate generally the change of county seats. Ritchie v.
22 Wall. 67.
The full discussion in Codlin v. Kohlhausen,
565, has lost but little of its force and applicability,
notwithstanding the later amendment of the statute. The law is
shown not to be a local law, and with regard to the twenty-mile
limit, it is said to be only reasonable to believe that the
legislature intended, in fixing it,
"to prevent cities and towns situated within a few miles of each
other from engaging in those injurious contests for the supremacy
for the location of the county seat, based upon population only.
The wisdom of these conditions is apparent, and it is within the
power of the legislature to make them."
However it may be as to the foregoing question, which
Page 227 U. S. 57
arises under an act of Congress, the other objections are of a
kind as to which we often have intimated our strong leaning toward
following the local courts, and therefore will not be discussed at
length. Fox v. Haarstick, 156 U.
, 156 U. S. 679
Treat v. Grand Canyon Ry. Co., 222 U.
, 222 U. S. 452
the first place, it is said that the statute was not approved by
the governor, and does not appear to have reached him more than
three days before the adjournment of the legislature, so as to have
become a law by Rev.Stat. § 1842. Also it is said that the bill was
not signed by the president of the council or the speaker of the
house of representatives, as required by the respective rules of
those bodies. But the act appears in the official copy of the Laws
of 1909, it passed the two houses in fact and in ample time to be
submitted to the governor. The governor returned the bill to the
council with the statement that he had allowed it to become a law
by limitation. We agree with the court below that the governor's
message is as good evidence as a note of the date on the bill that
the bill had been received long enough before the return to make
his statement correct. Gardner v.
6 Wall. 499, 73 U. S.
-509. The journals of the two houses showed the
passage of the bill, and we certainly should not reverse the local
decision that the evidence, if necessary, was admissible and
sufficient in aid of the act.
The next objection is to the form of the petition by which the
proceedings for the change were begun. The statute provides that
the board of county commissioners shall order a vote whenever
citizens of a county equal in number to at least one half of the
legal votes cast at the last preceding general election in the
county shall present a petition asking for the removal of the
county seat to some other designated place. The petition asked the
board "to call an election and submit to a vote . . . the
proposition to remove the county seat of said Lincoln county to
Carrizozo," etc. It is said that this did not ask
Page 227 U. S. 58
for the removal, and, if read with extreme technicality, it did
not, in so many words. But the petition very well might be held to
imply that the proposition to remove emanated from those who signed
-- the only persons from whom it could emanate under the law that
the petitioners had in mind.
Again, it is said that the ballot was in an unintelligible and
misleading form. The board, following the statute, Compiled Laws
1897, § 631, ordered that
"the tickets voted shall contain 'For County Seat,' with the
name of the place for which the voter desires to cast his ballot,
either written or printed thereon."
If the court was of opinion that the voters would understand
that those in favor of Carrizozo would write that word on the
ticket, and those opposed to a change would write "Lincoln," we
could not say that they overrated the intelligence of their fellow
citizens. There was no evidence that the voters were deceived. But
it is enough that the statute was followed. There is no ground on
which the law could be declared void.
It is objected that there was no registration of voters, as
required in general terms by § 1709 of the Compiled Laws. But that
§ required the county commissioners to appoint a board of
registration sixty days before any election, and, as the statute
concerning the change of county seats in case of a special election
required it to be called "at any time within two months of the date
of presenting said petition," it naturally was held that the case
was taken out of § 1709 by the latter act.
It is objected that various allegations of the bill were
admitted because not denied. If any such matter is open, the
allegations not denied were mainly, if not wholly, erroneous
conclusions of law from the facts proved at the trial.
Equitable Life Assurance Society v. Brown, 213 U. S.
, 213 U. S. 43
But it is not open. The argument seems to us to need no further or
more elaborate reply.