Knowledgebase-Analysis of the Term Citizen

Information Product

Title:Analysis of the Term Citizen
Summary:MTAS was asked what the word “citizen” in the City Charter means with respect to the eligibility of a person to be selected by the board of mayor and aldermen to fill a vacancy on that board.
Original Author:Hemsley, Sid
Product Create Date:12/10/2007
Last Reviewed on::05/01/2017
Subject:Personnel--Administration; City council
Type:Legal Opinion
Legal Opinion: Analysis of the Term Citizen public.doc

Reference Documents:

Text of Document: December 10, 2007

Dear City Attorney:

Your city has the following question: What does the word "citizen" in ' 6 of the City Charter mean with respect to the eligibility of a person to be selected by the board of mayor and aldermen to fill a vacancy on that board? Section 6 provides as follows:

No person shall be eligible for the office of mayor or aldermen unless he is a citizen of the City as hereunder incorporated. In case of death, removal or resignation of any of the offices of such corporation, the mayor and aldermen shall have the power to fill such vacancy for the unexpired term.

It is said in 14 C.J.S., Citizens, ' 2, that:

The term "citizen" is derived form the Latin word civis and is not a term of exact meaning. It is, therefore, a term capable of more meanings than one, and has been variously defined.

In a larger sense, the term "citizen" denotes a person who, as a member of a nation or of the body politic of a sovereign state owes allegiance to, and may claim reciprocal protection from its government. It is also sometimes defined as a person who is domiciled in a country, and who is citizen, although neither native or naturalized, in the sense that he or she takes his or her legal status from such country.

Pursuant to English law, a citizen may be defined as an inhabitant of a city. A citizen, pursuant to American law is, on the other hand, variously defined as a person who has a right to vote for representatives in Congress and other public officers, and who is qualified to fill offices....

The particular meaning of the word "citizen" is frequently dependent on the context in which it is found and must always be taken in the sense which best harmonizes with the subject matter in which it is used. A person may be considered a citizen for some purposes and not a citizen for other purposes.

It is further said in Greenough v. Board of Police Commissioners of Town of Tiverton, 30 R.I. 212, 74 A. 785 (1909), that

The noun "citizen" has been defined to be one who enjoys the freedom and privileges of a city; a freeman of a city, as distinguished from a foreigner, or one not entitled to its franchises; an inhabitant of a city; a townsman...In English law, the term means an inhabitant of a city; the representative of a city...[At 74 A. 787]

The word "citizen" in the context of ' 6 undoubtedly means a citizen in the English law context: an inhabitant of a city. Indeed, there is nothing else it could mean. In fact, Section 6 requires that a person eligible for the office of mayor or aldermen be a citizen of the city "as hereunder incorporated." That language clearly indicates that citizenship means that the mayor or an alderman must reside in the incorporated city.

The question of whether a person was a "citizen" of the Middle District of Tennessee arose in Gruetter v Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Co., 181 F. 248 (W.D. Tenn. 1909). Although that case arose under the Diversity Clause of the U.S. Constitution under which cases involving diverse citizenship can be removed to federal courts, what the court said about the meaning of citizenship appears to apply to citizenship in the context of the law governing eligibility for public office. In that case the defendant alleged that the plaintiff ' s claim of diversity of citizenship was faulty. The court rejected that allegation, declaring that:

I am of the opinion, however, that the fact that the plaintiff was a resident of the Middle District of Tennessee at the time the petition for removal was filed, affirmatively appears from the declaration which he filed in the state court on the same day, December 17, 1908, in which he is described as ' a citizen of Franklin county, Tenn. ' a phrase which, in my opinion, giving to the words their natural and obvious meaning, sufficiently describes the plaintiff as a citizen of Tennessee and a resident of Franklin county. To describe a person as being of a certain county can only mean, as words are ordinarily used, that he is a resident of that county... [At 255]

Section 6 does not expressly say that persons selected to fill vacancies in the office of mayor or aldermen must be "citizens" of the City, but it does expressly say that "No person shall be eligible for [those offices] unless he is a citizen of the City..." For that reason, ' 6 appears to unambiguously require that both persons elected to the board of mayor and aldermen, and persons appointed by that board to fill vacancies in such offices must be residents of the city.


Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant


Please remember that these legal opinions were written based on the facts of a given city at a certain time. The laws referenced in any opinion may have changed or may not be applicable to your city or circumstances.

Always consult with your city attorney or an MTAS consultant before taking any action based on information contained in this database.