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Buckwalter v. Borough of Phoenixville


December 28, 2009


Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered 01-08-2008 at No. 1361 CD 2007 that Affirmed the Order of Chester County Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, entered 06-: 27-2007 at No. 07-00522.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Eakin


ARGUED: April 15, 2009


Pursuant to Pennsylvania's Borough Code § 1001, the Phoenixville Borough Council enacted an ordinance eliminating compensation for its councilmembers and mayors, effective immediately.*fn1 Appellant, a councilman who voted against the ordinance, sought a declaratory judgment invalidating it, contending it altered councilmembers' compensation mid-term, in violation of Pennsylvania Constitution Article III, § 27.*fn2

The trial court, relying on Baldwin v. City of Philadelphia, 99 Pa. 164 (1881), determined the Phoenixville ordinance was not a "law" within the meaning of Article III, § 27, and dismissed appellant's action.*fn3 The Commonwealth Court affirmed, finding it was bound by Baldwin's holding that an ordinance is not a law within the meaning of Article III, § 27. Buckwalter v. Borough of Phoenixville, 940 A.2d 617, 624 n.17 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008). The court noted it could not disregard the binding precedent of Baldwin and its progeny,*fn4 though it invited this Court to reconsider Baldwin.

We granted allocatur to indeed re-examine Baldwin, and determine whether Pa. Const. art. III, § 27 prohibits mid-term compensation changes for elected municipal officers by means of a municipal ordinance. These are purely legal questions; thus, our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary. In re Milton Hershey School, 911 A.2d 1258, 1261 (Pa. 2006). In constitutional interpretation, "'[o]ur ultimate touchstone is the actual language of the constitution itself.'" Jubelirer v. Rendell, 953 A.2d 514, 528 (Pa. 2008) (quoting Stilp v. Commonwealth, 905 A.2d 918, 939 (Pa. 2006) (citations omitted)). We interpret constitutional language as the average person would understand it when they voted on its adoption, and avoid strained or technical interpretations. Id.

Baldwin is precedential, and Pennsylvania follows the doctrine of stare decisis, which "promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process." Stilp, at 954 n.31 (quoting Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230, 244 (2006) (citations omitted)). However, "stare decisis is not a vehicle for perpetuating error, but rather a legal concept which responds to the demands of justice and, thus, permits the orderly growth processes of the law to flourish." Estate of Grossman, 406 A.2d 726, 731 (Pa. 1979) (quoting Ayala v. Philadelphia Board of Public Education, 305 A.2d 877, 888 (Pa. 1973)).

Appellant contends Baldwin utilized a strained, technical interpretation of the word "law." He claims a "law" is a rule governing a community regardless of its source, and argues Article III, § 27 is a substantive restriction, limiting the subject matter of legislation enacted by any entity in the Commonwealth. Appellant notes this Court has applied other sections of Article III to municipalities, and argues we should do the same with § 27.

Appellant contends that as all municipalities derive their power from the Legislature, if the Legislature does not have the power to diminish salaries mid-term, it cannot delegate power to do so to municipalities.

Appellee counters that Baldwin was correctly decided, as at the time there was a national consensus that limited the word "law" to legislative acts. See, e.g., State v. Lee, 13 N.W. 913, 914 (Minn. 1882) (violations of municipal "by-laws" are distinct from Legislature's laws for double jeopardy purposes), abrogation recognized by Miles v. State, 707 A.2d 841, 847 (Md. 1998) ("The earlier view that state offenses and locally enacted offenses are treated as separate and distinct has been modified, because of double jeopardy principles."); Merideth v. Whillock, 158 S.W. 1061, 1064 (Mo. Ct. App. 1913) (ordinance is not law); Mayor of Rutherford v. Swink, 35 S.W. 554, 568 (Tenn. 1896) ("It is manifest that a municipal ordinance is not a statute."). Appellee contends Baldwin was consistent with this consensus. Appellee asserts prohibiting municipalities from addressing compensation mid-term would eliminate the flexibility necessary for municipal governance. Finally, because § 1001 of the Borough Code was enacted in reliance on Baldwin, appellee claims overruling Baldwin would cast doubt on § 1001's constitutionality.

Confining the term "law" in Article III, § 27 to enactments of the "supreme power," the Legislature, comports with Blackstone and his commentaries on English Law; while a worthy source, a more appropriate and ordinarily understood definition of "law" is "[t]he regime that orders human activities and relations through systematic application of the force of politically organized society, or through social pressure, backed by force, in such society." Black's Law Dictionary 900 (8th ed. 2004). This definition recognizes that the law comes from various legitimate sources and is not limited to direct enactments of the Legislature. For example, Black's describes an ordinance as "authoritative law or decree; esp. a municipal regulation.. [i]t is a legislative enactment, within its sphere, as much as an act of the state legislature." Id., at 1132 (quoting 1 Judith O'Gallagher, Municipal Ordinances § 1A.01, at 3 (2d ed. 1998)).

Even at the time of Baldwin, "law" was understood to include more than a legislature's enactments. See 2 John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary 12 (14th ed. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1874) (definition of law includes "rules and methods by which society compels and restrains its members"). Municipal ordinances were understood even then to be laws. See id., at 263 (ordinance is "[a] law, a statute, a decree"). It is fair to argue that as Article III of our Constitution establishes and limits the Legislature, it must, when it speaks of "law," refer to something done by that body; Baldwin does have some salient logic. However, it is also logical to believe the term includes derivative pronouncements of bodies authorized and empowered by the Legislature, acts by bodies other than the Legislature itself. With the latter notion, we agree. We conclude "law" in Article III, § 27 is not limited to legislative enactments; an ordinance is understood to be a law, and Baldwin's conclusion to the contrary is unsound.

Borough Code § 1001, which permits a borough to set compensation for its councilmembers, is a provision enacted by the Legislature. Furthermore, "municipal corporations are creatures of the State and. the authority of the Legislature over their powers is supreme. Municipal corporations have no inherent powers and may do only those things which the Legislature has expressly or by necessary implication placed within their power to do." Denbow v. Borough of Leetsdale, 729 A.2d 1113, 1118 (Pa. 1999) (citations omitted). Thus, every municipal ordinance emanates from the Legislature because it was enacted pursuant to enabling legislation.

As appellant notes, this Court has applied other provisions of Article III to municipalities. In Lighton v. Abington Township, 9 A.2d 609 (Pa. 1939), a township proposal to issue bonds to construct a sewer system permitted bondholders to take control of the system if the township defaulted. Id., at 610-12. Taxpayers argued the proposed bonds violated Article III, § 20 (now § 31).*fn5 Id., at 612. Enjoining the bond issuance, we held "the township, as the governmental agent of the state, is subject to the same prohibition to which the state is subject." Id.

We also applied the restriction set forth in Article III, § 29 (then § 18) to a municipality.*fn6 In Schade v. Allegheny County Institution District, 126 A.2d 911 (Pa. 1956), taxpayers sued to prevent the Allegheny County Institution District from spending its funds to support delinquent, neglected, or dependent children who had been placed in religious facilities. Id., at 912. Noting the District was a product of the Legislature, we applied Article III, § 18 (now § 29), reasoning:

It would be strange, indeed, if the legislature by creating a body politic or corporate to exercise a legislative function could do indirectly what it may not do directly. It seems too plain for cavil that, if a mere creature of the legislature can do what the legislature itself is constitutionally prohibited from doing, the carefully designed [constitutional] prohibition. could be rendered useless. Such a result is not to be sanctioned.

Id., at 913.

More recently, a borough council increased the pay of police officers who were subject to a collective bargaining agreement which did not provide for alteration of wages during the agreement's duration. Denbow, at 1113-14. The borough subsequently refused to pay this extra compensation, claiming it violated Article III, § 26,*fn7 and the officers filed suit. Id., at 1114. This Court reasoned that as the Constitution prohibited the Legislature from effecting a pay increase, the borough "should be likewise constrained." Id., at 1118. We invalidated the pay increases and distinguished the Baldwin line of cases by noting Article III, § 26 had already been applied to municipalities. Id., at 1115-16.

These cases highlight Baldwin's continuing untenability. Article III, § 27's limitation is meaningless if the Legislature can circumvent it by authorizing municipalities to enact the mid-term compensation changes the Legislature itself may not enact. This would be incongruous, as "[t]he [L]egislature, in turn, may delegate or grant only those powers which are constitutionally permitted." Denbow, at 1118 (citing Cleaver v. Board of Adjustment of Tredyffrin Township, 200 A.2d 408, 412 (Pa. 1964)). We have determined Baldwin's construction of "law" as including only legislative enactments was erroneous. This Court has applied other provisions of Article III to municipalities, showing the restrictions of Article III can extend to municipalities. We overrule Baldwin insofar as it held Article III, § 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution does not apply to municipal ordinances.

It is well-settled the Legislature may not alter, mid-term, the compensation of incumbent elected officials during their current terms. Bakes v. Snyder, 403 A.2d 1307, 1309 (Pa. 1979) (Article III, § 27 prohibited statute providing for "immediate" pay increases for county officers). Because the Legislature lacks the power to make mid-term changes to the compensation of public officials, it cannot give such a power to municipalities. See Denbow, at 1118. Therefore, the Phoenixville Borough Council lacked the authority to change its councilmembers' pay during incumbent councilmembers' terms.

The order of the Commonwealth Court is reversed.

Jurisdiction relinquished.

Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Mr. Justice Baer, Madame Justice Todd, Mr. Justice McCaffery and Madame Justice Greenspan join the opinion.

Mr. Justice Saylor files a concurring opinion.



Initially, the majority opinion indicates that Pennsylvania courts have consistently followed Baldwin v. City of Philadelphia, 99 Pa. 164 (1881). See Majority Opinion, slip op. at 2 n.4. Later in the opinion, however, the majority discusses a series of Article III cases exhibiting strong tension with Baldwin's core rationale. See id. at 6-7.

As ably advanced by Appellee, there have always been strong historical and contextual arguments to be made that the term "law," as used in Article III, refers only to enactments by the General Assembly.*fn8 Thus, I find this to be a very difficult setting in which to apply the exception to stare decisis pertaining to manifestly erroneous decisions. Rather, I believe the Court is in a position of reconciling two inconsistent, but both reasoned, lines of decisions, and that the present outcome is most consistent with this Court's modern Article III jurisprudence and the salutary policies underlying the constitutional prescriptions.

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