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decided: May 24, 1897.



Author: Shiras

[ 167 U.S. Page 650]

 MR. JUSTICE SHIRAS, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

[ 167 U.S. Page 651]

     In January, 1889, the city of San Angelo was existing and acting as an organized municipal corporation, with a mayor, a board of aldermen and other functionaries. In pursuance of an ordinance of the city council in May, 1889, there were issued the bonds in question in this case. It was not denied that the proceedings were regular in form, that the bonds were duly executed and registered as required by law, that the proceeds of their sale were properly applied to improving the streets and public highways of the city, and that the plaintiff was a bona fide holder for value.

As things then stood, it is plain that the city could not have set up to defeat its obligations any supposed irregularity or illegality in its organization. The State, being the creator of municipal corporations, is the proper party to impeach the validity of their creation. If the State acquiesces in the validity of a municipal corporation, its corporate existence cannot be collaterally attacked.

This is the general rule, and it is recognized in Texas: "If a municipality has been illegally constituted, the State alone can take advantage of the fact in a proper proceeding instituted for the purpose of testing the validity of its charter." Graham v. City of Greenville, 67 Texas, 62.

But, in 1890, at the fall term of the district court of Tom Green County, an information was filed by the county attorney against named persons, who were exercising and performing the duties, privileges and functions of a mayor and city council of the city of San Angelo, claiming the same to be a city duly and legally incorporated under the laws of the State, and alleging that said city was not legally incorporated, and that said named persons were unlawfully exercising said functions. Such proceedings were had that on December 15, 1891, the said district court entered a decree ousting the said persons from their said offices, and adjudging that the incorporation of said city of San Angelo be, and the same was thereby, abolished and declared to be null and void. The record does not distinctly disclose the ground upon which the court proceeded in disincorporating said city, but enough appears to justify the inference that the incorporation included

[ 167 U.S. Page 652]

     within its limits unimproved pasture lands, outside of the territory actually inhabited, and that the incorporation was declared invalid for that reason.

Subsequently, on February 10, 1892, the city of San Angelo was again incorporated, excluding the unimproved lands, but including all the improved part of the prior incorporation, and in which existed the streets and highways in the construction of which the proceeds of the said bonds had been expended.

What was the legal effect of the disincorporation of the city of San Angelo and of its subsequent reincorporation as respects the bonds in suit? Did the decree of the district court of Tom Green County, abolishing the city of San Angelo as incorporated in 1889, operate to render its incorporation void ab initio, and to nullify all its debts and obligations created while its validity was unchallenged? Or can it be held, consistently with legal principles, that the abolition of the city government, as at first organized, because of some disregard of law, and its reconstruction so as to include within its limits the public improvements for which bonds had been issued during the first organization, devolved upon the city so reorganized the obligations that would have attached to the original city if the State had continued to acquiesce in the validity of its incorporation?

Such a question was presented in Broughton v. Pensacola, 93 U.S. 266, and was answered in the following language:

"Although a municipal corporation, so far as it is invested with subordinate legislative powers for local purposes, is a mere instrumentality of the State for the convenient administration of government, yet, when authorized to take stock in a railroad company, and issue its obligations in payment of the stock, it is to that extent to be deemed a private corporation, and its obligations are secured by all the guarantees which protect the engagements of private individuals. The inhibition of the Constitution, which preserves against the interference of a State the sacredness of contracts, applies to the liabilities of municipal ...

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