Dillon, John F. (1831–1914)

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DILLON, JOHN F. (1831–1914)

Elected a member of the Iowa Supreme Court at thirty-one, John Forrest Dillon was a leading advocate of the public purpose doctrine. In 1869 President ulysses s. grant appointed Dillon to the Eighth Circuit Court, but after ten years' service Dillon resigned to accept a professorship at Columbia University Law School. Within three years he left that post to enter private practice, and he soon represented major business interests including Jay Gould and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Although Dillon was not an original thinker, his writings and speeches helped establish his tremendous reputation. He served as president of the American Bar Association in 1892 and delivered the prestigious Storrs Lectures at Yale University shortly thereafter. These were published in 1895 as The Laws and Jurisprudence in England and America, and in them Dillon claimed that the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment "in the most impressive and solemn form places life, liberty, contracts, and property … among the fundamental and indestructible rights of all the people of the United States." He endorsed substantive due process and rhapsodized on the distinction of America's written constitutions : their limitations on government. Restraints such as separation of powers and checks and balances were just two of the many means available to prevent "despotism of the many,—of the majority." Dillon also wrote an influential treatise on Municipal Corporations (1872).

As a judge, Dillon narrowly construed the public purpose doctrine. He believed that a municipal corporation had the authority to tax to support a public purpose, but incidental public benefits did not justify such taxation. Moreover, he believed that the judiciary could inquire into the legislative purpose and that private enterprises (with the sole exception of railroads) did not qualify under the doctrine. He thus wrote laissez-faire ideas into the law as limitations on legislative power (Loan Association v. Topeka, Commercial National Bank of Cleveland v. Iola, both 1873). Dillon appeared frequently before the Supreme Court where, in united states v. trans-missouri freight association (1897) he urged the Court to adopt the rule of reason whereby the sherman antitrust act would be read to prohibit only unreasonable restraints of trade, a position finally adopted in standard oil company v. united states (1911).

David Gordon


Jacobs, Clyde E. (1954)1973 Law Writers and the Courts. New York: Da Capo Press.