Taylor v. State, 24

Decision Date06 June 1960
Docket NumberNo. 24,J,24
Citation360 Mich. 146,103 N.W.2d 769
PartiesThaddeus B. TAYLOR, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. STATE of Michigan, Frank S. Szymanski, Auditor General, Defendant-Appellee. * anuary Term.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

James K. Miller, Grand Rapids, for appellant.

Paul L. Adams, Atty. Gen., Samuel J. Torina, Sol. Gen., Lansing, Russell A. Searl and Leon S. Cohan, Asst. Attys. Gen., for appellees.

Before the Entire Bench.

SMITH, Justice.

Here the plaintiff, formerly Judge of the Superior Court of Grand Rapids, has sought, from the court of claims, a declaration of rights.

His declaration originally claimed damages in the sum of $27,228.46, plus interest. This sum was a total of various salary items allegedly due to, and wrongfully withheld from, plaintiff. As to them, he asserted, he had a vested right by virtue of his performance of the buties of Judge of the Superior Court.

The defendant moved to dismiss upon four grounds: That the declaration did not state a cause of action; that the cause of action was barred by virtue of our order entered in a former proceeding brought by this plaintiff against the auditor general (Taylor v. Auditor General, 342 Mich. 265, 69 N.W.2d 823); and, finally, that some portions of the claim were outlawed by the statute of limitations, others by failure to institute action thereon or file notice of intent so to do within one year of their accrual.

Plaintiff thereafter struck the ad damnum clause from the declaration and inserted, in lieu thereof, a prayer for a declaration of rights under the statute. 1

Defendant was thereupon permitted to add to its motion to dismiss the additional ground that 'the court of claims does not have jurisdiction for a declaration of rights,' which ground constituted the basis of the trial court's grant of defendant's motion to dismiss. This issue, then, the jurisdiction of the court of claims, confronts us at the threshhold of the case.

The court of claims is a court of legislative creation. It came about in this way: the Constitution of 1908, in article 6, section 20, provided that the board of state auditors 'shall examine and adjust all claims against the state not otherwise provided for by general law.' In 1929, the State administrative board, which had been created in 1921, 2 was 'vested with discretionary power and authority to hear, consider and determine claims presented to said board against the state of Michigan, arising from or by reason of negligence, malfeasance or misfeasance of any state officer, employe, * * * and to allow same and order payment thereof.' 3

The court of claims act was passed subsequently. 4 This act conferred upon the newly created court of claims exclusive jurisdiction 'over claims and demands against the state or any of its departments, commissions, boards, institutions, arms or agencies.' 5

'In short,' as we held in Manion v. State Highway Commissioner, 303 Mich. 1, 20, 5 N.W.2d 527, 528: 'a 'court of claims,' was substituted by the Legislature for the 'board of state auditors' and the 'state administrative board' for the purpose of hearing and determining 'all claims and demands, liquidated and unliquidated, ex contractu and ex delicto against the state.''

The court thus created was, as we have held, a court of limited jurisdiction. Farrell v. Unemployment Compensation Commission, 317 Mich. 676, 27 N.W.2d 135. It derives its powers only from the legislative act of its creation and does not possess the broad and inherent powers of a constitutional court of general jurisdiction. Manion v. State Highway Commissioner, supra.

What, then, is its jurisdiction, as expressed in the act of its creation? We turn to section 8 of the statute:

'* * * The court shall have power and jurisdiction:

'1. To hear and determine all claims and demands, liquidated and unliquidated, ex contractu and ex delicto, against the state and any of its departments, commissions, boards, institutions, arms or agencies.'

The jurisdiction thus granted is narrow and limited, substituting, merely, a 'court' of claims for the superseded claims jurisdiction of the earlier boards. The Michigan statute under which a declaration of rights is sought employs the terminology of the uniform act in its use of the term 'courts of record' in authorizing the rendition of declaratory judgments. 6 But analysis of the entire act makes it clear that the statute does not authorize the rendition of declaratory judgments by any and all 'courts of record.' We do not, of course, gather the intent of a statute from some isolated clause thereof, or words of general import, but from the act as a whole. Those courts of record that are authorized to render declaratory judgments are indicated in section 2 of the act, 7 wherein it is provided that such declaration of rights may be obtained 'by means of a petition on either the law or the equity side of the court.' The court of claims has no 'equity side' as that term is employed in respect of the jurisdiction of Michigan courts, it being, as we have pointed out, a legislative court of limited jurisdiction to which has been assigned the hearing of claims formerly heard by administrative boards.

Our conclusions are fortified by those of the courts of other jurisdictions that have considered the problem. We note that just as our declaratory judgments statute confers the power to render declaratory judgments upon our courts of general jurisdiction, that is, courts having both a 'law side' and an 'equity side,' so the New York declaratory judgments act vests such power in its courts of similar general jurisdiction, namely, the Supreme Courts of that State. Consonant herewith, it was stated in General Mutual Insurance Co. v. Coyle, 207 Misc. 362, 364, 136 N.Y.S.2d 43, 45: 'There can be no such action [declaratory judgment action] instituted in the Court of Claims.' Since the court of claims does not have jurisdiction to act, there is no need to consider the additional issues presented to it, though our failure to discuss the applicability of the theory of res judicata, or collateral estoppel, or any other doctrine intended to prevent the bringing of repetitive actions over what is essentially the same cause of action, should not be interpreted as our sanction of what has been here done. See Restatement of Judgments, § 1, and §§ 41 to 72, inclusive.

The opinion of Mr. Justice BLACK, we note in closing, applies a theory plaintiff expressly disavowed to a constitutional argument plaintiff did not make to invest the court of claims with a jurisdiction it does not have. All of this is directed to the position that public officials' constitutional invulnerability to changes in salaries during their terms of office somehow or other offends the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Such conclusion is totally unsupported by applicable precedent and completely oblivious to the reasons for the adoption of the constitutional provision respecting salary stability.

We are constrained to observe that it is with considerable reluctance that we enter upon the discussion of any legal issue so intimately integrated with our own welfare as the principles applicable to the increase or reduction of judges' salaries. We share the feeling of the U. S. Supreme Court expressed in Evans v. Gore, 253 U.S. 245, 40 S.Ct. 550, 551, 64 L.Ed. 887, wherein the court prefaced its holding, in a case involving taxation of judges' salaries, with these words: 'Because of the individual relation of the members of this court to the question, thus broadly stated, we cannot but regret that its solution falls to us * * *. But jurisdiction of the present case cannot be declined or renounced.' Here, however, the constitutional question has been intruded with the case wholly needlessly. The court of claims has no jurisdiction to render the declaratory judgment prayed, and, if it had, the most serious questions would arise as to how many times this plaintiff may litigate what is essentially the same question, namely, his salary claims.

We do not rule upon the position that the Superior Court of Grand Rapids is a circuit court and the judge thereof a circuit judge. The point was neither relied upon nor briefed by either party to this litigation. In fact we find in plaintiff's brief in this case, and in his prior case seeking salary adjustment, a repudication and disavowal of such argument, 8 for reasons not obscure. The point had been squarely ruled upon and properly rejected in Dunham v. Tilma, 191 Mich. 688, 158 N.W. 216.

The plaintiff, then, by his own admission, is not, and does not claim to be, a circuit judge. In this posture of the case we did not consider, nor did any party brief to us, the question of whether or not plaintiff's salary deficiency of a circuit judge, and as a circuit judge, which he was not, when compared with the salary of a 'nearby' circuit judge, involved either a denial of plaintiff's right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of this State. Even had the question been before us, however, it would not have been ruled upon under the view we have taken as to the jurisdiction of the court of claims, for few principles of judicial interpretation are more firmly grounded than this: a court does not grapple with a constitutional issue except as a last resort. 9 Yet, as we noted, since such constitutional issue has been intruded into the case, however gratuitously, further discussion is in order lest our silence be construed as acquiescence in the propositions asserted with respect thereto.

The adoption of the original constitutional clauses respecting changes in salaries of public officials during their terms of office resulted from interference with the independence of the judiciary through the power of the purse during Revolutionary times. This was one of the principal causes of complaint in this era. 10 The Declaration of Independence itself,...

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