John Forrest Dillon

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John Forrest Dillon (December 25, 1831 – May 6, 1914) was an American jurist who served on federal and Iowa state courts. He authored a highly influential treatise on the power of states over municipal governments.

Early life and career[edit]

Dillon was born in Northampton, Montgomery County, New York (now part of Fulton County, New York). He studied medicine at the University of Iowa at the age of 19. Shortly after beginning his medical practice, he abandoned it to read law, and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1852. He worked in private practice until he was elected Scott County prosecutor in 1853, and then to a judgeship in Iowa's 7th Judicial Circuit in 1858. He was elevated to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1862 and served until 1869, when President Grant appointed him to the United States Circuit Court, which became the Eighth Circuit.

Federal judgeship and scholarly work[edit]

While on the federal bench, Dillon wrote Municipal Corporations (1872), one of the earliest systematic studies of the subject. He also authored Removal of Cases from State Courts to Federal Courts and Municipal Bonds, both in 1876. On February 17, 1876, during the Whiskey Ring graft prosecutions, Justice Dillon ruled Ulysses S. Grant's deposition for Orville E. Babcock was admissible in court.[1] After leaving the Circuit Court, Dillon was a professor at Columbia Law School from 1879 until 1882, where he taught real estate and equity. He taught at Yale Law School from 1891 until 1892, during which time he also served as the president of the American Bar Association. Dillon then returned to private practice until his death in 1914 in New York City.

A memorial fountain to Dillon was erected in downtown Davenport, Iowa in 1918, carved of Indiana limestone in Romanesque style, by sculptor Harry Liva.

Dillon's oldest son, Hiram Price Dillon (1855 – 1918), became a lawyer in Iowa and a Master of Chancery in federal court. John F. Dillon's sister married John B. Jordan, a Davenport, Iowa, merchant. That marriage produced a daughter Jennie, who married Louis Stengel. Louis and Jennie Stengel had a son, Charles Dillon (Casey) Stengel, named after the Judge, who had a long career as a baseball player and manager.

Dillon's Rule[edit]

The theory of state preeminence over local governments was expressed as Dillon's Rule in an 1868 case: "Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control".[2] By contrast, the Cooley Doctrine expressed the theory of an inherent right to local self-determination. In a concurring opinion, Michigan Supreme Court Judge Thomas M. Cooley in 1871 stated: "[L]ocal government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot take it away".[3]

In Municipal Corporations (1872), Dillon explained that in contrast to the powers of states, which are unlimited but for express restrictions under the state or federal constitution, municipalities only have the powers that are expressly granted to them.[4] This formulation of the scope of municipal power came to be known as the Dillon Rule: that municipal governments have only the powers expressly granted to them by the state legislature, those that are necessarily implied from that grant of power, and those that are essential and indispensable to the municipality's existence and functioning; that any ambiguities in the legislative grant of power should be resolved against the municipality so that its powers are narrowly construed; that when the state has not specifically directed the method by which the municipality may implement its granted power, the municipality has the discretion to choose the method so long as its choice is reasonable.

Hundreds of U.S. court decisions have employed the Dillon Rule to determine the scope of municipal powers and rights. Critics of the rule have argued that it imposes unreasonable constraints on the ability of communities to govern themselves and undermines democracy or that local self-government is a matter of natural right that does not need to be conferred by higher political structures. Some have suggested that Dillon's approach derived from the contemporary view that cities were inherently corrupt political organs. Deviations from the Dillon Rule remain in the minority, however, despite the significant decrease in the public perception of municipal corruption.

The Supreme Court of the United States cited Municipal Corporations and fully adopted Dillon's emphasis on state power over municipalities in Merrill v. Monticello,[5] which upheld the power of Pennsylvania to consolidate the city of Allegheny into the city of Pittsburgh, despite the objections of a majority of Allegheny's residents. The Court's ruling that states could alter or abolish at will the charters of municipal corporations without infringing upon contract rights relied upon Dillon's distinction between public, municipal corporations and private ones.

David Y. Miller argues that Dillon hit upon a central paradox defining American cities: having great political authority while having little legal legitimacy. He quotes Dillon as calling municipalities "mere tenants at will of their respective state legislatures" which could be "eliminated by the legislature with a stroke of the pen". Dillon also said that eliminating local government would be "so great a folly, and so great a wrong".

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Timothy Rives (2000). "Grant, Babcock, and the Whiskey Ring, Part 2". 
  2. ^ Clinton v Cedar Rapids and the Missouri River Railroad, (24 Iowa 455; 1868).
  3. ^ People v. Hurlbut, (24 Mich 44, 95; 1871).
  4. ^ West's Encyclopedia of American Law (2005). "Municipal Corporation". Retrieved 2009-12-14. 
  5. ^ Merrill v. Monticello, 138 U.S. 673 (1891), reaff'd. Hunter v. Pittsburgh, 207 U.S. 161 (1907)

References[edit]