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Opinion of the Court.
was passed entitled “ An act for the government of the District of Columbia, and for other purposes.” 18 Stat. 116, c. 337. By this act the government established by the act of 1871 was abolished, and the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, was authorized to appoint a commission, consisting of three persons, to exercise the power and authority then vested in the governor and board of public works, except as afterwards limited by the act. By a subsequent act, approved June 11th, 1878, 20 Stat. 102, c. 180, it was enacted that the District of Columbia should "remain and continue a municipal corporation,” as provided in § 2 of the Revised Statutes relating to said District, and the appointment of commissioners was provided for, to have and to exercise similar powers given to the commissioners appointed under the act of 1874. All rights of action and suits for and against the District were expressly preserved in
Under these different changes the administration of the affairs of the District of Columbia and city of Washington has gone on in much the same way, except a change in the depsitaries of power, and in the extent and number of powers conferred upon them. Legislative powers have now ceased, and the municipal government is confined to mere administration. The identity of corporate existence is continued, and all actions and suits for and against the District are preserved unaffected by the changes that have occurred.
In view of these laws, the counsel of the plaintiff contend that the government of the District of Columbia is a department of the United States government, and that the corporation is a mere name, and not a person in the sense of the law, distinct from the government itself. We cannot assent to this view. It is contrary to the express language of the statutes. That language is that the District shall “remain and continue a municipal corporation,” with all rights of action and suits for and against it. If it were a department of the government, how could it be sued? Can the Treasury Department be sued? or any other department? We are of opinion that the corporate capacity and corporate liabilities
Opinion of the Court.
of the District of Columbia remain as before, and that its character as a mere municipal corporation, has not been changed. The mode of appointing its officers does not abro gate its character as a municipal body politic. We do not suppose that it is necessary to a municipal government, or to municipal responsibility, that the officers should be elected by the people. Local self-government is undoubtedly desirable where there are not forcible reasons against its exercise. But it is not required by any inexorable principle. All municipal governments are but agencies of the superior power of the State or government by which they are constituted, and are invested with only such subordinate powers of local legislation and control as the superior legislature sees fit to confer upon them. The form of those agencies and the mode of appointing officials to execute them are matters of legislative discretion. Commissioners are not unfrequently appointed by the legislature or executive of a State for the administration of municipal affairs, or some portion thereof, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. It may be demanded by motives of expediency or the exigencies of the situation ; by the boldness of corruption, the absence of public order and security, or the necessity of high executive ability in dealing with particular populations. Such unusual constitutions do not release the people from the duty of obedience or from taxation, or the municipal body from those liabilities to which such bodies are ordinarily subject. Protection of life and property are enjoyed, perhaps in greater degree, than they could be, in such cases, under elective magistracies; and the government of the whole people is preserved in the legis lative representation of the State or general government. “Nor can it in principle,” said Mr. Justice Hunt in the Barnes case, “be of the slightest consequence by what means these several officers are placed in their position, whether they are elected by the people of the municipality or appointed by the President or a governor. The people are the recognized source of all authority, State and municipal, and to this authority it must come at last, whether immediately or by a circuitous process." Barnes v. District of Columbia, 91 U. S. 540, 545.
Opinion of the Court.
One argument of the plaintiff's counsel in this connection is, that the District of Columbia is a separate State or sovereignty according to the definition of writers on public law, being a distinct political society. This position is assented to by Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for this court, in the case of Hep burn v. Ellzey, 2 Cranch, 445, 452, where the question was whether a citizen of the District could sue in the circuit courts of the United States as a citizen of a State. The court did not deny that the District of Columbia is a State in the sense of being a distinct political community; but held that the word “State" in the Constitution, where it extends the judicial power to cases between citizens of the several “States,” refers to the States of the Union. It is undoubtedly true that the District of Columbia is a separate political community in a certain sense, and in that sense may be called a State ; but the sovereign power of this qualified State is not lodged in the corporation of the District of Columbia, but in the government of the United States. Its supreme legislative body is Congress. The subordinate legislative powers of a municipal character which have been or may be lodged in the city corporations, or in the District corporation, do not make those bodies sovereign. Crimes committed in the District are not crimes against the District, but against the United States. Therefore, whilst the District may, in a sense, be called a State, it is such in a very qualified sense. No more than this was meant by Chief Justice Taney, when, in the Bank of Alerandria v. Dyer, 14 Pet. 141, 146, he spoke of the District of Columbia as being formed, by the acts of Congress, into one separate political community, and of the two counties composing it (Washington and Alexandria) as resembling different counties in the same State; by reason whereof it was held that parties residing in one county could not be said to be "beyond the seas," or in a different jurisdiction, in reference to the other county, though the two counties were subject to different laws.
We are clearly of opinion that the plaintiff is a municipal corporation, having a right to sue and be sued, and subject to the ordinary rules that govern the law of procedure between private persons.
Opinion of the Court.
2. But the Supreme Court of the District supposes that municipal corporations are not embraced in the words of the statute of limitations. Let us see whether that view can be maintained.
The statute in force in the District is that of Maryland, passed in 1715, c. 23. The act, as regards personal actions, is substantially the same as that of 21 James I. It commences with a preamble, as follows: “Forasmuch as nothing can be more essential to the peace and tranquillity of this province than the quieting the estates of the inhabitants thereof, and for the effecting of which no better measures can be taken than a limitation of time for the commencing of such actions as in the several and respective courts within this province are brought, from the time of the cause of such actions accruing.” It is then enacted, “that all actions of trespass quare clausum fregit, all actions of trespass, detinue, sur trover, or replevin,
all actions of account, contract, debt, book, or upon the case,
all actions of debt for lending, or contract without specialty,
shall be sued or brought by any person or persons within this province,
shall be commenced or sued within the time and limitation hereafter expressed, and not after ; that is to say, the said actions of account, and the said actions upon the case, upon simple contract,
and the said actions for debt, detinue, and replevin
within three years ensuing the cause of such action, and not after ;—."
—.” 1 Kilty's Laws, April, 1715, c. 23. There is nothing in any part of the act to restrain the generality of this language : “all [enumerated] actions sued or brought by any person or persons within this province,
shall be commenced within three years." Corporations are “persons” in the law. There is no apparent reason why they should not be included in the statute. It is conceded that private corporations are included. On what ground, then, can municipal corporations be excluded ? Not on the ground that they are not “persons,” for that would exclude private corporations. They are, therefore, within the terms of the law.
3. Are they not also within the spirit and reason of the law?
Opinion of the Court.
They are certainly within the reason of the preamble. It is just as much for the public interest and tranquillity that municipal corporations should be limited in the time of bringing suits as that individuals or private corporations should be. The reason stated in the preamble for the passage of the law applies to all; and, moreover, it shows that the objects of the law are beneficent ones, and, therefore, that it should be liberally construed. It cannot apply to the sovereign power, of course. No restrictive laws apply to the sovereign, unless so expressed. And especially no laws affecting a right on the ground of neglect or laches, because neglect and laches cannot be imputed to him. And it matters not whether the sovereign be an individual monarch, or a republic or state. The principle applies to all sovereigns. The reason usually assigned for this prerogative is, that the sovereign is not answerable for the delinquencies of his agents. But whatever the true reason may be, such is the general law —such the universal law, except where it is expressly waived. The privilege, however, is a prerogative one, and cannot be challenged by any person inferior to the sovereign, whether that person be natural or corporate.
It is scarcely necessary to discuss further the question of the applicability of the statute of limitations to a purely municipal corporation when it is embraced within the general terms of the law. It was expressly decided to be applicable in the cases of Kennebunkport v. Smith, 22 Maine, 445; Cincinnati v. First Presbyterian Church, 8 Ohio, 298; Cincinnati v. Evans, 5 Ohio St. 594; St. Charles County v. Powell, 22 Missouri, 525; Armstrong v. Dalton, 4 Devereux, (Law,) 568; and other cases cited in the notes to Wood on Limitations, $ 53; and to 2 Dillon on Municipal Corporations, $ 668, 3d ed. Judge Dillon, in the section last cited, accurately says: “The doctrine is well understood, that to the sovereign power the maxim, 'nullum tempus occurrit regi,' applies, and that the United States and the several States are not, without express words, bound by statutes of limitation. Although municipal corporations are considered as public agencies, exercising, in behalf of the State, public duties, there are many cases which