City of Joplin v. Jasper County

Decision Date05 May 1942
Docket Number37423
Citation161 S.W.2d 411,349 Mo. 441
PartiesCity of Joplin, Appellant, v. Jasper County
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Appeal from Jasper Circuit Court; Hon. Ray E. Watson Judge.

Reversed and remanded (with directions).

Stanley P. Clay for appellant.

Ralph Baird, Prosecuting Attorney, and C. S. Walden Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, for respondent.



In this action by the City of Joplin against Jasper County a declaratory judgment is sought respecting their correlative rights, duties and obligations to the poor and particularly the indigent sick of Jasper County who are also residents of Joplin, a city of the second class.

The plaintiff's petition, after setting forth the capacities of the parties, specifically pleads Sections 9590-9593 of Article 3, Chapter 55, R. S. Mo. 1939, relating to the support of the county poor. It is then alleged that there are many poor inhabitants, especially sick poor, of Jasper County who are also residents of Joplin, who are unable to support themselves and that on March 20, 1939, the City Council of Joplin "while in conference with the County Court of defendant County, requested the County to relieve, maintain and support such sick poor persons which the County Court declined to do under the guise and pretext the above quoted statute did not require the County to care for sick poor persons residing in the City of Joplin because the city maintained a health officer who was also a Deputy State Commissioner of Health under the statutes." The petition states that the County's refusal to maintain and support such persons is "arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and illegal" under the statutes and deprives the poor sick of Joplin of their lawful rights. It is then stated that the County's action affects "the rights, status and legal relations of the plaintiff municipality and of all sick and poor inhabitants therein," therefore, a declaration of the rights and duties of the parties under the statutes is asked. The defendant's pleading was a general denial.

The case was tried by the court on an agreed statement of facts which, for the most part, is in the phraseology of the petition with the additional fact that Joplin maintains a Department of Health which has, on occasions, refused medical aid and hospitalization to sick poor of the County who were also residents of the City. "That the same has been refused by both the City and County because of a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding on the part of all officers as to whom should treat and attend sick patients. That because of said conditions, said sick persons have and are now suffering from lack of proper medical care and hospitalization."

The court's decree "finds that the responsibility of furnishing medical aid and medicine for sick, poor persons residing in the City of Joplin, does not exclusively fall upon either the County of Jasper or upon the City of Joplin, but that such responsibility falls equally upon both the County of Jasper and the City of Joplin according to their means and ability to furnish such medical attention and supplies." It was therefore decreed "that there is a dual responsibility because the person is not only a resident of the City of Joplin, but also a resident of Jasper County and the law . . . places a responsibility upon each of performing that function of government so far as funds available will permit them to do in the sound discretion of the officials charged with that particular function of government."

The City of Joplin appeals contending the trial court should have decreed it to be the mandatory duty of the County to relieve, maintain and support such poor people and especially such sick poor and says the settlement of the problem depends solely on the construction to be given Sections 9590-9593, R. S. Mo. 1939.

While the creation, adoption and application of the Declaratory Judgments Act is an epochal achievement, especially for the legal profession, it is not a panaceal legal remedy. It represents a great advance in judicial methods and concepts but it must be used and operate within the limits of the constitutional powers and duties of courts. Its political and social utility, of necessity, lies somewhere between the ideals of its draftsmen and the strict construction of some of the courts. See and compare: Borchard, Declaratory Judgments, and the collections of cases in 9 Uniform Laws Annotated, pp. 215-260; Anderson, Declaratory Judgments; 12 A. L. R. 52; 19 A. L. R. 1124; 50 A. L. R. 42; 68 A. L. R. 110; 71 A. L. R. 1426; 87 A. L. R. 1205; 101 A. L. R. 689 and 114 A. L. R. 1361. Our own motion is that its application must be within the more moderate and yet liberal limits suggested by Judge Laurance M. Hyde in 26 Wash. U. L. R. 468, 490-491. As applied to the instant case, no matter how beneficial or socially useful, or urgent, a judicial construction of the laws pertaining to indigents may be to the City of Joplin or to Jasper County or their residents, it is not possible to intelligently declare the correlative rights, duties and obligations of the parties to such people under this record.

The act furnishes a particularly appropriate method for the determination of controversies relative to the construction and validity of statutes and ordinances. [Anderson, Declaratory Judgments, Sec. 324, p. 783; Borchard, Declaratory Judgments, pp. 764-801; 16 Am. Jur., Sec. 24, pp. 296-298; Sec. 1127, R. S. Mo. 1939; John Bardenheier Wine & Liquor Co. v. City of St. Louis, 345 Mo. 637; 135 S.W.2d 345; School Dist. of Kansas City v. Smith, 342 Mo. 21, 111 S.W.2d 167; Smith v. Pettis County, 345 Mo. 839, 136 S.W.2d 282.] And it is an appropriate way of determining the powers and duties of various governmental agencies (Borchard, Declaratory Judgments, pp. 798-801, 904) and even the duties of different governmental agencies with respect to the administration of public assistance. [Anderson, Declaratory Judgments, Sec. 253, pp. 656-657.] But, when it is attempted to be so used and a judicial declaration is sought the court must be presented with a justiciable controversy -- one appropriate for judicial determination -- a case admitting of specific relief by way of a decree or judgment conclusive in character and determinative of the issues involved. [Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 57 S.Ct. 461, 81 L.Ed. 617, 108 A. L. R. 1000; Anderson, Declaratory Judgments, Sec. 8, p. 27; 16 Am. Jur., Sec. 46.] There must be a sufficiently complete state of facts presenting issues ripe for determination before a court may declare the law. "A mere difference of opinion or disagreement or argument on a legal question affords inadequate ground for invoking the judicial power." [Borchard, Declaratory Judgments, p. 77; State ex rel. La Follette v. Dammann, 220 Wis. 17, 264 N.W. 627, 103 A. L. R. 1089.]

Declaratory relief has been asked and given with respect to various political subdivisions and their administration of public assistance, but in each instance the facts were such that the court could pass on them, construe the pertinent statutes and enter a binding, conclusive judgment. For example, in Stutsman County v. Bowman County, 68 N.D. 699, 283 N.W. 179, one county brought a suit against another county, a certain named man, his wife and three children seeking to have them declared poor persons and public charges of the defendant county as residents of that county and thus presented a justiciable controversy. [Contra: Town of Manchester v. Town of Townshend, 109 Vt. 65, 192 A. 22.] And so Maricopa County and its Board of Supervisors could sue the Arizona Board of Social Security and Public Welfare and obtain a declaration as to which party was under the duty of furnishing and paying for the quarters to be occupied by the County Board of Social Security. [Maricopa County v State, 51 Ariz. 372, 77 P.2d 212.] Or, when all the statutes relating to the welfare activities of various political subdivisions had been repealed and one general statute...

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