Butler v. Pennsylvania
Annotate this Case
51 U.S. 402 (1850)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Butler v. Pennsylvania, 51 U.S. 10 How. 402 402 (1850)
Butler v. Pennsylvania
51 U.S. (10 How.) 402
In 1836, the State of Pennsylvania passed a law directing canal commissioners to be appointed, annually, by the governor, and that their term of office should commence on the 1st of February in every year. The pay was four dollars per diem.
In April, 1843, certain persons being then in office as commissioners, the legislature passed another law providing, amongst other things, that the per diem should be only three dollars, the reduction to take effect upon the passage of the law, and that, in the following October, commissioners should be elected by the people.
The commissioners claimed the full allowance during their entire year, upon the
ground that the state had no right to pass a law impairing the obligation of a contract.
There was no contract between the state and the commissioners, within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
The object was to test the constitutionality of an act passed by the Legislature of Pennsylvania on 18 April, 1843, entitled "An act to reduce the expenses and provide for the election of the Board of Canal commissioners." The allegation was that the act was repugnant to the Constitution of the United States.
The plaintiffs in error were, on 1 February, 1843, severally appointed and commissioned by the governor of Pennsylvania to be canal commissioners for one year, by separate commissions from the governor, all of similar tenor and date, of one of which the following is a copy:
"David R. Porter Governor of the said commonwealth, to John B. Butler sends greeting: "
"Whereas, in and by an act of the general assembly of this commonwealth, passed 28 January, 1836, the governor is empowered and required, on or after the first day of February, 1836, and annually thereafter, to appoint three canal commissioners, and, in case of vacancy, to supply the same by new appointments, whose powers, duties, and compensation shall be the same as those of the then present board, and shall commence on the first day of February, 1836, and on the first day of February annually thereafter, and whose term of service shall continue for one year: "
"Now, therefore, be it known, that, having full confidence in your integrity and ability, I, the said David R. Porter Governor of said commonwealth, in pursuance of the power and authority to me by law given, have, and by these presents do, appoint you, the said John B. Butler, to be a canal commissioner for the term of one year from the day of the date of these presents, if you shall so long behave yourself well. Hereby giving and granting to you, in conjunction with the other commissioners, all the rights, powers, and emoluments of the said office, and authorizing and requiring you to unite with the said commissioners in the execution and performance of all the duties of a canal commissioner, agreeably to the several laws of this commonwealth."
"Given under my hand and the great seal of the said commonwealth &c., the first day of February, A.D. 1843. "
This appointment was made in pursuance of the act of assembly passed 6 April, 1830 Pamph.Laws, 218; Internal Improvement Laws 65, and of the Act of 28 January, 1836 Pamph.Laws 23; Int.Imp.Laws 145.
The first of these acts, § 1, provides,
"That on or before the first Monday of June next, and annually thereafter, the governor shall appoint three canal commissioners, and, in case of vacancy, supply the same by new appointments, whose powers and duties shall be the same as those of the present board, and shall commence on the first Monday in June, and shall continue in office for one year, and who shall receive, as a full compensation for their services and expenses, the sum of four dollars each per day,"
The second act provides
"That it shall be the duty of the governor, on or after the first day of February next 1836 and annually thereafter, to appoint three canal commissioners, and in case of vacancy supply the same by new appointments, whose powers, duties, and compensation shall be the same as the present board, and shall commence on the 1st of February next, and whose term of service shall continue for one year,"
On 18 April, 1843, the Legislature of Pennsylvania passed an act in the following words, to-wit:
"An act to reduce the expenses and provide for the election of the board of canal commissioners."
"§ 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in general assembly met, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same that, at the next annual election, the qualified voters of the several counties of this commonwealth shall vote for three persons as canal commissioners, who shall perform all the duties now by law enjoined upon the canal commissioners of this commonwealth; the persons so elected shall decide by drawing from a box ballots numbered one, two, and three, which of them shall hold his office one, which two, and which three years; the commissioner who shall draw the ballot numbered three shall hold his office three years; he who shall draw the ballot numbered two shall hold his office two years; and the other shall hold his office one year; on the second Tuesday in October in each year thereafter, there shall be elected one person as canal commissioner, who shall hold his office for three years; the elections of canal commissioners shall be conducted by the officers authorized by law to conduct the general elections in the several election districts; a return of the votes given for said office shall be made to the secretary
of the commonwealth in the manner now provided for the transmission of returns of elections of Representatives; the secretary of the commonwealth, on receipt of all the returns, shall notify the persons so elected, who shall enter upon the duties of their office on the second Tuesday in January succeeding their election; if any vacancy shall occur in the said Board of canal commissioners by death, resignation, or otherwise, the governor shall appoint a suitable person to supply the vacancy until the next general election, when a person shall be elected for the unexpired term of him whose death, resignation, or removal shall have caused a vacancy, and that the pay of the said canal commissioners, as well as the present canal commissioners, from and after the passage of this act, shall each be three dollars per day."
The remaining sections are omitted as relating to the subordinate officers.
At the annual election in October, 1843, three gentlemen were elected canal commissioners, who, on 9 January, 1844, assumed upon themselves the duties of the office to which they had been elected.
The plaintiffs error continued in the exercise of the duties of the office the said 9 January, 1844, and were ready and willing to serve out the balance of the term for which they were commissioned, but were then superseded by the persons elected in October, 1843, pursuant to the said statute of 18 April, 1843.
On 22 March, 1844, the Auditor General and State Treasurer settled the accounts of the plaintiffs in error, as late canal commissioners, in which they allowed them each $4 per day from 1 February, 1843, to 18 April, 1843, inclusive, and $3 per day from 18 April, 1843, to 8 January, 1844, resulting in a balance due the commonwealth of $1,071.
From this settlement the plaintiffs in error appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, pursuant to the provisions of the act of assembly.
The cause came on for trial in the Common Pleas of Dauphin County on 25 October, 1847, when the foregoing facts were given in evidence, when the court charged the jury as follows:
"The defendants were appointed canal commissioners for the term of one year commencing on the first day of February, 1843, at which time their compensation was fixed by law at four dollars per day. On 18 April, 1843, the legislature, by an act entitled 'An act to reduce the expenses, and provide for the election of canal commissioners,' Pamphlet
Laws of 1843,p. 337, reduced the pay of canal commissioners from four to three dollars per day. The Auditor General and State Treasurer settled the accounts of the canal commissioners in pursuance of this act. The canal commissioners contend that this act is unconstitutional, so far as it relates to reducing their pay after their appointment to office, and this is the only question that is presented in this case. The court instruct the jury that the act in question is not unconstitutional; and, as there is no other dispute, they should find for the commonwealth. To this charge the defendants' counsel excepts, and it is filed at their request."
"N. B. ELDRED, Pres. Judge"
The jury, under this charge, found a verdict in favor of the commonwealth for $1,301.26, the amount stated to be due from the plaintiffs in error by the Auditor General and State Treasurer, with interest accrued thereon.
The commissioners carried the case to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which, on 30 June, 1848, affirmed the judgment of the court of common pleas.
A writ of error brought the case up to this Court.