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Bills of Attainder and Ec Post Facto Laws.
227. We have already seen that Congress can pass no bill of attainder or ea post facto law (sec. 206), and for the same reason the states are equally prohibited to pass such laws. A power to do so could scarcely be exercised by the most judicious hands without oppression and injustice, and is, therefore, denied both to Congress and the state legislatures. But an ex post facto law, it will be recollected, relates to criminal proceedings. Hence the Constitution does not prohibit the states from passing retrospective laws which relate to civil proceedings, though such laws may destroy vested interests or affect private rights. A contract, for example, founded upon an illegal or immoral consideration is void; yet it would not be repugnant to the Constitution for a state to enact that all such contracts should be valid and binding upon the parties, though such enactment would be retrospective in its character.
Impairing the Obligation of Contracts. 228. The states can pass no law impairing the obligation of contracts; but there is nothing in the Constitution that forbids Congress from passing such laws. Any deviation from the terms of a contract, by which the intentions of the parties are enlarged or abridged, or in any manner changed, as by postponing or accelerating the period of performance, imposing conditions not expressed in the contract, or dispensing with those which are expressed, however minute or apparently immaterial in their effect upon the contract, impair its obligation. Laws, however, which merely affect or change the remedy by which a contract is enforced, do not impair its obligation, provided effectual though different means of enforcing it remain. 229. The contracts to which the Constitution refers are those which respect property, or some object of value, and confer rights which may be asserted in a court of justice. Such contracts, whether entered into between individuals, or states, or corporations, or between a state and individuals, cannot be impaired by state legislation. 230. A state is as much inhibited from impairing its own contracts, or contracts to which it is a party, as it is from impairing the obligation of contracts between individuals. When, therefore, a state makes a grant of lands or corporate powers, an implied contract arises that it will not reassert the right with which it has parted. Thus, when a state makes a
conveyance of land, such conveyance cannot be rescinded or revoked by the state. The right of the state is extinguished by the grant, and cannot be resumed. But it may discontinue offices created by statute, or take away the compensation without abolishing the office; or, as we shall see in the next section, abolish or change the organization of municipal corporations at any time, unless forbidden by its own fundamental law. It cannot, however, take from a municipal corporation the power to levy taxes to pay existing debts; nor authorize stay of execution in a case where the debtor has expressly waived it; nor deprive persons of the right to maintain suits because participating in or sympathizing with rebellion against the United States; nor invalidate a contract for the purchase or hire of slaves, such contract being valid when made; nor compel a public creditor to surrender his securities, and accept others bearing a less interest.
231. With regard to charters, they are divided into two classes, namely, public and private charters. The former are such as relate to public purposes alone, to charters that incorporate towns, cities, &c. Such charters merely grant political power, and are not contracts within the meaning of the Constitution, and may, therefore, be changed or modified at the pleasure of the state legislatures—care being taken, of course, not to violate or infringe private rights. But private charters, such as are granted to banks, colleges, insurance or turnpike companies, are contracts between the state and the corporators, and cannot, therefore, without the consent of such corporators, be altered or repealed by the state, unless the right to do so has been expressly reserved; nor can the state subject a private corporation to forfeiture of its franchises for that which was not a cause of forfeiture originally; nor repeal a statute which made the stockholders liable for its debts contracted while it was in force. 232. On the other hand, where a state grants
rights to private corporators in matters in which the public interest is concerned, no implied contract arises that it will not make a similar grant to other corporators, though the second grant may operate to the injury of the first. Thus, where a state granted a charter to a company authorizing them to build a bridge, and take tolls thereon for a certain period, it was held that it might equally grant a similar charter to another company, though the second bridge should be on the same line of travel as the first, and accommodate the same passengers, and thus be the means of diverting its tolls; and this for the reason that as no direct engagement was made that no other bridge should be built, no such engagement was to be implied; because in such cases no rights are to be taken from the public and given to corporations by implication.
232}. The state under the right of eminent domain, to which all contracts are subject, may appropriate corporate franchises, as well as every other species of property. If suitable provision is made by the legislature for the compensation of those whose property or franchise is injured or taken away, under this paramount power, there is no violation of public faith or private right. On the contrary, the obligation of the contract created by the charter is thereby recognized.
233. A state law which discharges a debtor from his obligation to pay a debt which was contracted before the passage of the law, is unconstitutional and void, because it not only impairs, but destroys the obligation of the contract. But a law which operates upon and discharges future contracts is constitutional, provided such contracts are made within the state, and between citizens of the state. And this for the reason that parties to a contract have reference to the existing laws of the place where it is made. They know that these laws act upon their contract and govern its construction, validity, and obligation. A state, too, may prescribe the remedies to enforce contracts, and pass statutes of limitation, as well as change the rules of evidence, applicable to existing causes of action or to pending suits. And it may too abolish existing remedies, provided other and efficient ones are substituted or remain, and may increase ex