John Forrest Dillon

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John Dillon
John Forrest Dillon.jpg
Judge of the United States Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit
In office
December 22, 1869 – September 1, 1879
Appointed byUlysses Grant
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byGeorge McCrary
Personal details
Born(1831-12-25)December 25, 1831
Northampton, New York, U.S.
DiedMay 6, 1914(1914-05-06) (aged 82)
New York, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
EducationUniversity of Iowa (MD)

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, in partnership with Ebenezer Cook, 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, serving from January 1, 1864, until he resigned December 31, 1869. For two years of this period he was Chief Justice. in 1869, 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.

In 1853, Dillon married Anna Margery Price (born 19 June 1835). They had two sons and a daughter. Anna and their daughter, Mrs. Annie Dillon Oliver, died in the sinking of the French ocean liner SS La Bourgogne in July, 1898.

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, or the doctrine of home rule, 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, "local 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 "Dillon's Rule." It holds that municipal governments have only the powers expressly granted to them by the state legislature, those powers necessarily implied by the express powers, and those that are essential and indispensable to the municipality's existence and functioning. Further, the powers expressly granted to the municipality should be narrowly construed, and any ambiguities in the legislative grant of power should be resolved against the municipality. However, 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.

The Supreme Court of the United States cited Municipal Corporations and fully adopted Dillon's emphasis on state power over municipalities in Hunter v. Pittsburgh,[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. However the Court did not prevent states from passing legislation or amending their constitutions to explicitly allow home rule.

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. States which do not follow Dillon's Rule—home rule states, including Dillon's own Iowa—remain in the minority, despite the significant decrease in the public perception of municipal corruption.

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".


  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. ^ Hunter v. Pittsburgh, 207 U.S. 161 (1907)


External links[edit]

Legal offices
New seat Judge of the United States Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit
Succeeded by
George McCrary