Donathan v. McMinn County

Decision Date17 July 1948
Citation213 S.W.2d 173,187 Tenn. 220
PartiesDONATHAN et al. v. McMINN COUNTY et al.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Appeal from Chancery Court, McMinn County; G. W. Woodlee Chancellor.

Suit in equity by J. C. Donathan and others against McMinn County and others for adjudication of the unconstitutionality of the private act reorganizing the government of such county. From a decree dismissing the bill, complainants appeal.

Modified and affirmed as modified.

Chas. C. Guinn, of Etowah, and R. Arnold Kramer Erma G. Greenwood and R. R. Kramer, all of Knoxville, for appellants.

Duggan & Washington, of Athens, for appellees.


Complainants below, as taxpayers of McMinn County, allege in their bill that Chapter 346 of the Private Acts of 1947, applicable alone to McMinn County, is unconstitutional for each of several reasons. The Chancellor, after a hearing on the bill and sworn answer of defendants, councilmen and other officials of McMinn County, dismissed the bill, being of the opinion that the act did not violate the Constitution in the particulars alleged, or that as to certain sections of the act the complainants were not entitled to an adjudication since they were not shown to be adversely affected by those sections. Complainants have appelled and make the insistences hereafter stated. These insistences have been thoroughly briefed on all sides.

The purpose of the act is stated in its very voluminous caption as follows:

'An Act to reorganize the Government and Administration of McMinn County by creating and establishing a County Council for said County; * * * by divesting the Quarterly County Court of McMinn County and the Chairman thereof of certain statutory powers and duties and by vesting these and various other powers and duties in the Council * * *'- The same purpose in a much more condensed form was stated in the caption and enacted in the body of the Private Acts applicable to Shelby, Knox and Polk Counties, respectively. Those acts were adjudged by this Court to be valid enactments in the cases of Prescott v. Duncan, 126 Tenn. 106, 148 S.W. 229 (Priv.Acts 1911, c. 237); Troutman v. Crippen, Tenn.Sup., 212 S.W.2d 33 (Chapter 183, Private Acts of 1937), and Crewse v. Beeler, Tenn.Sup., 212 S.W.2d 39 (Chapter 367, Private Acts of 1947). It is said by the appellants that those decisions are not applicable here because additional powers sought to be transferred by the McMinn County Act to the county council renders that act invalid.

This act creates a county council of nine members for McMinn County to whom is transferred from the County Quarterly Court all of its powers except those given it by the Constitution. These council members are to receive substantial salaries. Therefore, these complainants as taxpayers have the right to attack the constitutionality of the act, as a whole, since it imposes a burden of taxation upon them not common to citizens who pay no taxes. Reams v. Board of Mayor and Aldermen, 155 Tenn. 222, 225, 291 S.W. 1067.

Further, if these complainant taxpayers are not shown to be adversely affected by a particular provision of the act they are not entitled to attack the constitutionality of that particular provision unless the invalidity of that provision renders the entire act invalid. Hyde v. State, 131 Tenn. 208, 215, 174 S.W. 1127; Troutman v. Crippen, supra.

Section 1 of this act provides that this McMinn County Council 'is authorized and empowered to administer, direct and control all those activities, affairs, departments, functions and offices of McMinn County that are not expressly vested by the Constitution of the State of Tennessee or by general law of this State which is not subject to modification by a Private Act, * * *. All policy-making and administrative powers and functions and duties of the County government are hereby vested in the Council; except those expressly reserved in the State Constitution or in controlling general law to another agency.' Based upon that language which we have italicized in this question, and which appears in other sections of the act, it is insisted that there is no criteria by which to determine the extent of the powers of the County Council and, therefore, the act is so vague and indefinite that it violates the due process clause (Article I, Section 8) of our State Constitution, and of our Federal Constitution, (14th amendment). Samuelson v. State, 116 Tenn. 470, 492, 493, 95 S.W. 1012, 115 Am.St.Rep. 805.

Other than in Samuelson v. State, supra, as to the unconstitutionality of a vague and indefinite statute, we find no analogous precedent in our own decisions for guidance here. However, in the Minnesota case of State v. Lanesboro Produce & Hatchery Co., 221 Minn. 246, 21 N.W.2d 792, 795, 163 A.L.R. 1108, it is held that the uncertainty in a statute which will amount to a denial of due process of law.

'is not the difficulty of ascertaining whether close cases fall within or without the prohibition of a statute, but whether the standard established by the statute is so uncertain that it cannot be determined with reasonable definiteness that any particular act is disapproved.'

In the Minnesota case of State v. Northwest Poultry & Egg Co., 203 Minn. 438, 281 N.W. 753, two members of that Court are quoted in 163 A.L.R. 1112 as stating what seems to us to be a sound and applicable principle, to-wit: 'That is not uncertain or vague which by the orderly processes of litigation can be rendered sufficiently definite and certain for purposes of judicial decision'. Certainly, a judicial decision could be rendered upon any issue which might be made by a disagreement as to whether a particular power sought to be exercised by the McMinn County Council under this act is one controlled by a general law that cannot be modified by a private act.

For another reason, we think the same result follows. This act takes up forty-four pages of the published volume of the Private Acts of Tennessees for 1947. The unusual length of this document is largely due to the specification in laborious detail of the specific duties and powers of the County Council, its manager and other officers or employees. Two well settled principles of law assert themselves here. One is

'wherever an act is susceptible of two constructions, one of which may render the act valid and the other invalid, the courts adopt the construction that will render the act valid.' Soukup v. Sell, 171 Tenn. 437, 441, 442, 104 S.W.2d 830, 831.

The other is:

'The legislative intent will prevail over the strict letter or literal sense of the language used, and, in order to carry into effect this intent, general terms will be limited, and those that are narrow expanded.' Farmer v. Wiseman et al., 177 Tenn. 578-582, 151 S.W.2d 1085, 1086, 135 A.L.R. 1169.

We think that within the spirit of the two rules just stated, the broad general language used in this act must be read in connection with and referable to and limited by the specific duties and powers enumerated by the act in such minute detail. Appellants' insistence upon this point must, therefore, be rejected.

It is also insisted that the act violates Article XI, Section 8 of the Constitution in that in various particulars now to be considered the general law applicable to all other counties of the State is suspended as to McMinn County.

In so far as the act creates a county council and transfers from the Quarterly Court and its chairman to this council all duties and powers connected with the administrative and executive governmental affairs of McMinn County, except those duties and powers conferred upon the Quarterly Court by the Constitution, this question is foreclosed adverse to the contentions of these appellants by the decision of this Court in Prescott v. Duncan; Troutman v. Crippen; Crewse v. Beeler, supra.

It is asserted, however, that the general law is by the act suspended contrary to the prohibition of Article XI, Section 8 in that by Section 4 of the act McMinn County is required to pay for corporate surety bonds of the members of the council; and by Section 13 the council is authorized to appropriate funds for emergencies brought about by some catastrophe; and by Section 24 it is provided that advertisement shall be had and bids received for any contract involving obligations in excess of $500.00. There is no general law prohibiting the doing of any of these acts. Each affects McMinn County in its governmental capacity. A special act not contrary to the provisions of a general law and affecting a county in its governmental capacity may legally be enacted. Darnell v. Shapard, 156 Tenn. 544, 3 S.W.2d 661; Town of McMinnville v. Curtis, 183 Tenn. 442, 448, 192 S.W.2d 998; KnoxTenn Theatres v. Dance, 186 Tenn. 114, 208 S.W.2d 536, 541.

The remaining particular provisions of the act which the appellants insist operate to suspend the general law are these:--(1) Section 6 gives the council 'authority and power' to supervise 'the methods used and the work done by the County Tax Assessor in assessing property for taxation and that done by the County Board of Equalization in passing upon and equalizing the assessments made'. By Section 12, subd. (a) a manager elected by and holding his position at the will of the council is made responsible to the council 'for supervising and directing' the assessment 'of all property for purposes of taxation, the preparation of the property tax books', and by Section 14 the director of the department of finance is made responsible to the manager 'for supervising as fully as may be possible under existing general law the methods used and the work done by the County Tax Assessor in assessing property for taxation, and by the County Board of Equalization in passing upon...

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  • Cagle v. McCanless
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • December 9, 1955
    ... ...         The complainants, as citizens and taxpayers of Hamilton County, filed their original bill in the Chancery Court against George F. McCanless, Attorney General of ... See also Donathan v. McMinn County, 187 Tenn. 220, 213 S.W.2d 173; Phillips v. West, 187 Tenn. 57, 213 S.W.2d 3, ... ...

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