Wednesday, July 9, 2008

'Never' means at least until the next election.

The May/June 2008 issue of the Municipal Lawyer mentions some of the more lively ListServ discussions.  One in particular should be of interest to both attorneys and government officials.

Patti Wells, an attorney with the Denver, Colorado Water Legal Division, was struggling to find authority for the proposition that a current city council cannot limit the authority of a future city council.  Everyone she spoke with agreed with her but could not provide any case law.  Finally, she uncovered Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch 87 (1810), a case decided by Chief Justice John Marshall involving Indian reservations and grants of land from the King of England.

A more recent case citing Fletcher v. Peck discussed the ability of a State (or political subdivision) to limit its power to act in the future--either through contract or legislation.  See U.S. Trust Co. of N.Y. v. New Jersey, 431 U.S. 1 23 (1977).  In that case, Justice Marshall's quote was approvingly re-stated that "one legislature cannot abridge the powers of a succeeding legislature."  As such, even in cases where a city or county enters into a long-term contract in accordance with all other legal authority, a future council/board may not have to comply with the terms of the contract as "the Contract Clause [of the United States Constitution] does not require a State [or political subdivisions] to adhere to a contract that surrenders an essential attribute of its sovereignty."  See id.

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