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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 ยง 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) ...

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