May 11, 2007
You contend that members of a municipal planning commission must take an oath of office. You base your contention on Article X, § 1 of the Tennessee Constitution and T.C.A. § 6-21-103, which is part of the city's charter. I continue to disagree with you, even though you make some good points.
T.C.A. § 6-21-103 reads:
Every officer, agent, and employee holding a position upon an annual salary shall, before entering upon such person's duties, take and subscribe and file with the recorder, an oath or affirmation that such person has all the qualifications named in this charter for the office or employment such person is about to assume, and that such person will support the constitutions of the United States and of this state and the charter and ordinances of the city and will faithfully discharge the duties of the office or employment.
This section by its terms applies only to officers and employees who have "all the qualifications named in this charter for the office or employment such person is about to assume." The qualifications of planning commission members, such as they are, are not set out in the charter but in general law. The intent of this section appears to be to require the officers and employees important enough to be created by the charter to take an oath or affirmation. Since the planning commission and its membership are not created by charter, my opinion is that this section does not apply to them.
Article X, § 1 of the Tennessee Constitution provides:
Every person who shall be chosen or appointed to any office of trust or profit under this Constitution, or any law made in pursuance thereof, shall, before entering on the duties thereof, take an oath to support the Constitution of this State, and of the United States, and an oath of office.
I think the key words here for our purposes are "office of trust or profit." These words are also used in Article VI, § 7, in which judges are prohibited from holding any other "office of trust or profit." They are also used in the state ouster statute (T.C.A. § 8-47-101, et seq.) where any person holding an "office of trust or profit" can be ousted for certain bad acts. Although the words are the same, they are not necessarily given the same meaning in the different contexts. The judicial prohibition, for example, has been given an expansive meaning, with even a military appointment being considered an "office of trust or profit." Frazier v. Elmore, 173 S.W.2d 563 (Tenn. 1943). The obvious policy reason for this expansive interpretation of the words is that judges should be impartial and able in all circumstances to perform their duties without conflicts of interests.
There are also policy reasons why the phrase in the ouster statute should be given a somewhat expansive interpretation, although I am not aware of any case in which the ouster statute has been applied to an official who is not popularly elected. This is probably because there are other methods of removing non-elected officials.
The policy reasons for the expansive interpretation under the judicial section of the Constitution and under the ouster statute do not, in my opinion, obtain under the oath provision -- Art. X, § 1. The result of the very expansive interpretation you suggest would be that perhaps most state and local government personnel would be required to take an oath. And I doubt there is any good reason to require this.
There is virtually no law interpreting the words" office of trust or profit" under the oath provision. The old but still good case of Harris v. Buck, 196 S.W. 142 (Tenn. 1917), is instructive, however, on how the words might be interpreted. This is a case under the ouster law and it illustrates the limits of even an expansive interpretation. The question was whether the county engineer appointed by the legislative body held an "office of trust or profit." The court held that this was not an "office of trust or profit" because the office, although authorized by the General Assembly, was not created by that body. Therefore, the office itself must be created by the General Assembly by statute, not just authorized by statute.
The Court says, "[T]he legislation does not declare a purpose on the part of the General Assembly to create a county office or a public office of any character. The power which the legislation vests in the quarterly county court is to appoint a county engineer." Further in support of its ruling the Court says, "It does not make this appointment mandatory. It does not fix the term during which he shall be employed, nor the compensation he shall receive. * * * [T]he absence of an expression of the intent is strong evidence that it did not exist, because, if it existed, why was it not expressed?" 196 S.W. at 143.
This case cites an older case, Prescott v. Duncan, 148 S.W. 229 (Tenn. 1912), in which appointees of the county legislative body were actually designated as officers in an act of the General Assembly. The case found, nevertheless, that "the persons named in the act as officers were mere appointees and subordinates of the board of commissioners at whose hands each appointee held his position." Id. at 144.
Finally, the Court in the Harris case holds:
[I]f it had been intended to create the office of county engineer, the General Assembly by its own act would, at least, have fixed the tenure, the duration, the fees or emoluments, the rights and powers, as well as the duties of the office. It would not have left these important essentials in the creation of a public office to be provided for by the act of the quarterly county court." Id., at 144.
Under the general planning statutes it is not mandatory for a city to have a planning commission. There is no mandatory compensation for members of the planning commission. The tenure is left up to local decision, although one term must expire each year. Appointive members may be removed by the mayor. There is no intent expressed here to create this as a municipal office. (See T.C.A. § 13-4-101, et seq.). Therefore, in my opinion, an appointive member of a municipal planning commission does not hold an "office of trust or profit" under Art. X, § 1 of the Tennessee Constitution and is not required to take an oath.