1. Before the expiration of the incumbent's term, the municipal
office of Commissioner of Public Parks and Streets to which he had
been elected was abolished by later legislation, pursuant to which
he was employed, until the next election, to render as
Superintendent of Parks and Streets under control of the Mayor the
same service pertaining to the governmental functions of the city
in the supervision of its parks and streets as he had rendered as
Commissioner, and at the same salary. Held
action of the legislature and the city terminating the employment
before the term had expired was within the legislative power over
public offices, and not an impairment of contract obligation within
the meaning of the contract clause of the Constitution. Pp.
306 U. S. 535
306 U. S. 539
2. While this Court, in applying the contract clause of the
Constitution, must reach an independent judgment as to the
existence and nature of the alleged contract, great weight is
attached to the views of the highest court of the State. P.
306 U. S.
190 La. 821, 183 So. 168, affirmed.
Appeal from the affirmance of a judgment dismissing the
complaint in an action against the City to recover money alleged to
be due as salary.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.
The City of Baton Rouge, in March, 1935, pursuant to Act No. 1
of the First Extraordinary Session of 1935 of the legislature of
Louisiana, adopted an ordinance declaring
Page 306 U. S. 536
that the City was without authority to retain appellant, Powers
Higginbotham, as Superintendent of Public Parks and Streets, and
that his employment in that capacity was terminated. Contending
that he had been employed for a term continuing until November,
1936, and that the legislation abovementioned constituted an
impairment of the obligation of his contract in violation of § 10
of Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States, appellant
brought this suit to recover the balance of his salary for the
stated term. The Supreme Court of the State affirmed the judgment
dismissing his complaint. 190 La. 821, 183 So. 168.
The pertinent legislation with respect to the municipal position
in question is comprehensively reviewed in the opinion of the state
court. It appears that the City of Baton Rouge has a commission
form of government adopted in 1914 under the provisions of Act No.
207 of 1912. The authority of the Commission Council is divided
among three departments, viz.,
(1) the Department of
Public Health and Safety, (2) the Department of Finance, and (3)
the Department of Public Parks and Streets. It was provided that a
Commissioner should be elected for each department, the Mayor being
Commissioner of Public Health and Safety. In
1921, the terms of office of the members of the Commission Council
were fixed at four years, the election to be had in April.
Appellant was elected Commissioner of the Department of Public
Parks and Streets in April, 1931, for a term which was to expire in
May, 1935. But, in 1934, the date for the election of officers was
postponed to November, 1936, and appellant's term of office was
extended accordingly. Later, by Act No. 13 of the Third
Extraordinary Session of 1934, the legislature abolished the office
of Commissioner of Public Parks and Streets and transferred its
functions to the Mayor. There was also created a Department of
State Coordination and Public Welfare
Page 306 U. S. 537
and provision was made for the election of a Commissioner of
that Department. This was followed by a proviso that the person
then filling the office of Commissioner of the Department of Public
Parks and Streets should be entitled to enter the employ of the
City at a salary equal to that theretofore allowed to the
"in the work under the said Mayor and said person shall have the
right to continue in said service during good behavior until the
next general election of officers in said municipality."
Appellant was the person thus described, and accordingly, in
January, 1935, the Commission Council adopted an ordinance reciting
the statutory provisions and providing for the employment of
appellant as Superintendent of Public Parks and Streets, under the
"at the same salary now provided for the Commissioner of Public
Parks and Streets, his employment to continue during good behavior
and until the next general election for municipal officers."
Appellant accepted the employment and entered upon the discharge
of his duties, as to the faithful performance of which no question
The state court held that the position in question was "in the
nature of a public office" with governmental functions, and that
the legislative action in abolishing it did not contravene the
constitutional provision as to impairment of contracts. The court
referred to the provision of the Act of 1912 abovementioned that
"all of the powers and authority" conferred upon the City by its
charter, not inconsistent with the provisions of the Act, were
declared to be "reserved to the City unimpaired" to be exercised by
the Mayor and Commission Council. Further, that, by the charter of
the City (§ 7 of Act No. 169 of 1898), it was provided "that the
employees' of the city are removable as therein specified" and
that, by a subsequent provision (§ 52, as amended by Act. No. 249
of 1914, § 4) it was declared that "all officers elected by
Page 306 U. S.
Council shall be removable by the Council at pleasure."
Again, that, by the Act of 1912, it was declared that
"any official or assistant elected or appointed by the
commission council may be removed from office at any time by a vote
of the majority of the members of the council,"
except as therein otherwise provided, and that there was no
exception elsewhere that might be applicable to the present case.
The court said that the general rule that a municipal council "may
remove at any time any official appointed or elected by the
council, or anyone employed by the council to perform governmental
functions" had been recognized in its former decisions, which were
cited. 183 So. at 172.
In this view, the state court was of the opinion that the case
was not controlled by Hall v. Wisconsin, 103 U. S.
, upon which appellant relies -- a case of a contract
with a State for the performance of specific services of a
scientific character under a statute providing for "a Geological,
Mineralogical and Agricultural Survey" -- a contract which was held
to be within the constitutional protection, and, rather, that the
case was governed by the general doctrine reaffirmed in Newton
v. Mahoning County Commissioners, 100 U.
, 100 U. S. 557
While the particular question was not involved in that case, the
court stated the familiar principle that
"the legislative power of a State, except so far as restrained
by its own Constitution, is at all times absolute with respect to
all offices within its reach. It may at pleasure create or abolish
them, or modify their duties. It may also shorten or lengthen the
term of service."
p. 100 U. S. 559
See also Butler v.
10 How. 402; Crenshaw v. United
States, 134 U. S. 99
134 U. S. 106
Phelps v. Board of Education, 300 U.
, 300 U. S. 322
Dodge v. Board of Education, 302 U. S.
, 302 U. S.
While this Court, in applying the contract clause of the
Constitution, must reach an independent judgment as to the
existence and nature of the alleged contract (Larson
Page 306 U. S. 539
South Dakota, 278 U. S. 429
278 U. S. 433
United States Mortgage Co. v. Matthews, 293 U.
, 293 U. S.
), we attach great weight to the views of the highest
court of the State. Coombes v. Getz, 285 U.
, 285 U. S. 441
Phelps v. Board of Education, supra; Dodge v. Board of
In this instance, we find no reason for
disagreeing with the conclusion reached by the Supreme Court of
Louisiana. The Act providing for appellant's "employment" did not
change the nature of the duties which he had been performing as
Commissioner. Instead of acting as Commissioner, he rendered the
same service as Superintendent of Public Parks and Streets under
the control of the Mayor. His duties still distinctly pertained to
the performance of the ordinary governmental functions of the City
in the supervision of its streets and parks and his position as
Superintendent, both with respect to duties and tenure, may
properly be regarded as subject to the control of the legislature
and of the Commission Council acting under its authority.
The judgment is