Article III, Section 56 of the Texas Constitution ("Local and Special Laws")

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As amended November 6, 2001:

(a) The Legislature shall not, except as otherwise provided in this constitution, pass any local or special law, authorizing [sic]: (1) the creation, extension or impairing of liens; (2) regulating the affairs of counties, cities, towns, wards or school districts; (3) changing the names of persons or places; (4) changing the venue in civil or criminal cases; (5) authorizing the laying out, opening, altering or maintaining of roads, highways, streets or alleys; (6) relating to ferries or bridges, or incorporating ferry or bridge companies, except for the erection of bridges crossing streams which form boundaries between this and any other state; (7) vacating roads, town plats, streets or alleys; (8) relating to cemeteries, grave-yards or public grounds not of the State; (9) authorizing the adoption or legitimation of children; (10) locating or changing county seats; (11) incorporating cities, towns or villages, or changing their charters; (12) for the opening and conducting of elections, or fixing or changing the places of voting; (13) granting divorces; (14) creating offices, or prescribing the powers and duties of officers, in counties, cities, towns, election or school districts; (15) changing the law of descent or succession; (16) regulating the practice or jurisdiction of, or changing the rules of evidence in any judicial proceeding or inquiry before courts, justices of the peace, sheriffs, commissioners, arbitrators or other tribunals, or providing or changing methods for the collection of debts, or the enforcing of judgments, or prescribing the effect of judicial sales of real estate; (17) regulating the fees, or extending the powers and duties of aldermen, justices of the peace, magistrates or constables; (18) regulating the management of public schools, the building or repairing of school houses, and the raising of money for such purposes; (19) fixing the rate of interest; (20) affecting the estates of minors, or persons under disability; (21) remitting fines, penalties and forfeitures, and refunding moneys legally paid into the Treasury; (22) exempting property from taxation; (23) regulating labor, trade, mining and manufacturing; (24) declaring any named person of age; (25) extending the time for the assessment or collection of taxes, or otherwise relieving any assessor or collector of taxes from the due performance of his official duties, or his securities from liability; (26) giving effect to informal or invalid wills or deeds; (27) summoning or empanelling [sic] grand or petit juries; (28) for limitation of civil or criminal actions; (29) for incorporating railroads or other works of internal improvements; or (30) relieving or discharging any person or set of persons from the performance of any public duty or service imposed by general law.

(b) In addition to those laws described by Subsection (a) of this section in all other cases where a general law can be made applicable, no local or special law shall be enacted; provided, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to prohibit the Legislature from passing: (1) special laws for the preservation of the game and fish of this State in certain localities; and (2) fence laws applicable to any subdivision of this State or counties as may be needed to meet the wants of the people.

Editor Comments

This important and heavily-litigated section generally prohibits the enactment of "local" laws and "special" laws. In addition, Article XII, Section 1 mandates that "[n]o private corporation shall be created except by general laws." Cf. Harwood v. Wentworth, 162 U.S. 547, 563-64 (1896) ("We are of the opinion that the territorial act is not a local or special law . . . . The act is general in its operation; it applies to all counties in the Territory; it prescribes a rule for the stated compensation of certain public officers; no officer of the classes named is exempted from its operation; and there is such a relation between the salaries fixed for each class of counties, and the equalized assessed valuation of property in them, respectively, as to show that the act is not local and special in any just sense, but is general in its application to the whole Territory and designed to establish a system for compensating county officers that is not intrinsically unjust, nor capable of being applied for purposes merely local or special.").

Unfortunately, much of the jurisprudence regarding this type of legislative restriction is indefinite. Cf. Henderson v. Koenig, 168 Mo. 356, 372 (1902) ("The act in question is local as to the city of St. Louis, and special as to the incumbent of the office of judge of probate."); Charles Binney, Restrictions Upon Local and Special Legislation in State Constitutions 25-26 (1894) ("(1) A general law is one which applies to and operates uniformly upon all members of any class of persons, places or things, requiring legislation peculiar to itself in the matter covered by the law. (2) A special law is one which relates either to particular persons, places or things, or to persons, places or things which, though not particularized, are separated, by any method of selection, from the whole class to which the law might, but for such limitation, be applicable. (3) A local law is one whose operation is confined within territorial limits other than those of the whole State or any properly constituted class of localities therein.").

For over one hundred years, more than forty state constitutions have contained provisions restricting the enactment of local and special laws. Some of the provisions are relatively simple and some, referred to as laundry lists, are rather lengthy. Such restrictions serve a variety of purposes, including: (1) preventing the Legislature from usurping local control over public policy matters generally delegated to units of local government (i.e., stopping the Legislature from meddling in local matters); and (2) reserving more time for the Legislature to study, debate and address public policy matters important to the whole state. Cf. Tex. Const. Art. III, § 56, Interpretive Commentary (1955) ("The constitutional framers believed that restrictions on the passage of local and special bills would prevent the granting of special privileges; secure uniformity of law throughout the state; decrease the passage of courtesy bills; and encourage the legislature to devote more of its time to interests of the state at large.").

The first broad prohibition on local and special laws to appear in a Texas constitution was added by amendment to the Texas Constitution of 1869. In January 1874, the provision (Art. XII, Sec. 40) became effective when ratified by the Legislature. It read: "The Legislature shall not pass local or special laws in any of the following enumerated cases: that is to say, [1] for locating or changing county seats, [2] regulating county or town affairs, [3] regulating the practice in courts of justice, [4] regulating the duties and jurisdiction of justices of the peace and constables, [5] providing for changes of venue in civil and criminal causes, [6] incorporating cities and towns, or changing or amending the charter of any city or village, [7] providing for the management of common schools, [8] regulating the rates of interest on money, [9] remitting fines, penalties, or forfeitures, [10] changing the law of descent. In all other cases when a general law can be made applicable, no special law shall be enacted; or in any case when a general law can be made applicable, no special law shall be enacted. The Legislature shall enact general laws providing for the cases before enumerated in this section, and for all other cases which, in its judgment, may be provided by general laws."

Rather than expanding or otherwise modifying the 1874 provision, this section, as adopted in 1876, instead closely tracked the laundry list provision (Art. IV, Sec. 53) contained in the Missouri Constitution of 1875, which read in part: "The General Assembly shall not pass any local or special law: [1] Authorizing the creation, extension or impairing of liens; [2] Regulating the affairs of counties, cities, townships, wards or school districts; [3] Changing the names of persons or places; [4] Changing the venue in civil or criminal cases; [5] Authorizing the laying out, opening, altering or maintaining [sic] roads, highways, streets or alleys; [6] Relating to ferries or bridges, or incorporating ferry or bridge companies except for the erection of bridges crossing streams . . . . In all other cases, where a general law can be made applicable, no local or special law shall be enacted; and whether a general law could have been made applicable in any case, is hereby declared a judicial question, and as such shall be judicially determined without regard to any legislative assertion on that subject. Nor shall the General Assembly indirectly enact such special or local law by the partial repeal of a general law; but laws repealing local or special acts may be passed."

This section has been amended once. The 2001 modification was part of a "constitutional cleanup amendment." It made several stylistic changes and transferred the substance of Sections 22 and 43 of Article XVI to this section. The local and special laws authorized by other sections, either expressly or by implication, include laws: (1) relating to the court system (Article V, Sections 1, 7, 8, 21); (2) creating or affecting a conservation and reclamation district (Article XVI, Section 59); (3) creating or affecting a road or water district (Article III, Section 52); (4) providing for road maintenance (Article VIII, Section 9); (5) creating or affecting a hospital district (Article IX, Sections 4-11); (6) creating or affecting an airport authority (Article IX, Section 12); (7) relating to the regulation of stock (Article XVI, Section 23); (8) granting aid or tax relief in cases of public calamity (Article III, Section 51, Article VIII, Section 10); and (9) providing for consolidation of functions of political subdivisions (Article III, Section 64).

As reflected by the decisions referenced below, the Texas jurisprudence in this area is within the national mainstream. The governing rule can be summarized as follows: A general law is a statute which relates to persons, places or things as a bona fide class, both in the present and in the future, which class is based upon a real and substantial difference which bears a reasonable relation to the statute's purpose. A special law is an enactment which relates to particular persons, places or things of a class; to a class as it is constituted at a given time without allowance for changes in the future; or to a pretended class which bears no reasonable relation to the purpose of the relevant statute. A local law is a special law in which the places to which it applies are territorial subdivisions of the state. Note that the substance of the foregoing rule is routinely stated in different terms. More importantly, recognize that the rule is often ignored by courts when considered necessary to reach a "fair and just" result.

Attorney Steve Smith

Recent Decisions

  • City of Tyler v. Liberty Utilities Corp., 571 S.W.3d 336, 342-43 (Tex.App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, no writ) (footnotes omitted) ("With respect to the general prohibition against enacting local or special laws, the Supreme Court of Texas has characterized the purpose as 'a wholesome one' that 'is intended to prevent the granting of special privileges and to secure uniformity of law throughout the State as far as possible.' The Court has observed that . . . . The prohibition on local or special laws in its current form was introduced in the post-reconstruction Texas Constitution of 1876, and it was amended to add Subsection (b) in 2011 [sic].")
  • Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation v. Lewellen, 952 S.W.2d 454, 465 (Tex. 1997) (citations omitted) ("Moreover, the growers contend that, because of the statute's classifications, it is a local or special law in violation of Article III, Section 56 of the Texas Constitution. A local law is limited to a specific geographic region of the State, while a special law is limited to a particular class of persons distinguished by some characteristic other than geography. Legislation does not violate Article III, Section 56, however, as long as there is a reasonable basis for its classifications. As explained above, the Act satisfies this test.")
  • Maple Run at Austin Mun. Utility Dist. v. Monaghan, 931 S.W.2d 941, 948-49 (Tex. 1996) ("It is well settled that Section 59(b) authorizes the Legislature to pass local legislation creating specific conservation and reclamation districts without violating Article III, Section 56. . . . Under these circumstances, Section 59 cannot reasonably be read as authorizing local legislation that arbitrarily singles out a community for financial regulation. For the foregoing reasons, we hold that section 43.082 is not authorized under Article XVI, Section 59 of the Texas Constitution, and therefore is a prohibited local law under Article III, Section 56.")

Historic Decisions

  • City of Irving v. Dallas/Fort Worth Int'l Airport Bd., 894 S.W.2d 456, 467 (Tex.App.–Fort Worth 1995, denied) ("There is no doubt about the significance . . . . If ever a statute could be found not local or special 'even though its enforcement or operation is confined to a restricted area,' because 'persons or things throughout the State are affected thereby or if it operates upon a subject in which people at large are interested,' see id. (citing Lower Colorado River Authority, 83 S.W.2d at 629), Senate Bill 348 is such a measure. The Board is also correct in pointing out that Senate Bill 348 may in the future apply to other jointly-operated airports.")
  • Kelly v. State, 724 S.W.2d 42, 47 (Tex.Crim.App. 1987) ("In a sense, Art. 1918c, supra, is a 'special or local' law as it is expressly limited to Dallas County. The intent of Art. III, Section 56 . . . was 'to combat corruption, personal privileges, and meddling in local affairs–or, conversely, to prevent a group from dashing to the Capitol to get something their local government would not give them.' Vol. 1, The Constitution of the State of Texas: An Annotated and Comparative Analysis, at page 273. However, as the commentary to the section makes clear, that section of our Constitution has been rendered virtually meaningless by court decisions.")
  • Robinson v. Hill, 507 S.W.2d 521, 526 (Tex. 1974) ("Any classification on the basis of population is subject to this complaint, and that circumstance alone is not a sufficient basis for holding the statutory classification unconstitutional. The Legislature has rather broad power to make classifications for legislative purposes, and there is nothing here to suggest that the line drawn is arbitrary or capricious or a mere device used for the purpose of giving a local law the appearance of a general law. See Miller v. El Paso County, 136 Tex. 370, 150 S.W.2d 1000. In our opinion the statute is a general law and does not violate Art. III, Sec. 56, of the Texas Constitution.")
  • Board of Managers of the Harris County Hospital District v. Pension Board of the Pension System for the City of Houston, 449 S.W.2d 33, 38 (Tex. 1969) ("The fact that Section 23a applied, when passed, only to the City of Houston does not make it a local or special law. As a matter of fact, Article 6243g applied only to the City of Houston when it was passed in 1965, but all of its provisions, including those added by Section 23a, are applicable to any city having 900,000 or more inhabitants according to any future Federal census. In this respect the Act differs from the one stricken down in City of Ft. Worth v. Bobbitt, 121 Tex. 14, 36 S.W.2d 470 (1931).")
  • Devon v. City of San Antonio, 443 S.W.2d 598, 601 (Tex.Civ.App.–Waco 1969, ref'd) ("There are no restrictions that limit its operation to any city. It is general and uniform in its application to all cities which may now or hereafter fall within its reasonably broad class. Appellant does not suggest any basis for holding that the classification in the Act is unreasonable or arbitrary, or that it was put in general form by the legislature merely to evade the Constitution, and we find none. To the contrary, considering the subject matter of the Act, we perceive, without discussing, substantial grounds for the classification made by the legislature. The Act is a general law.")
  • Smith v. Davis, 426 S.W.2d 827, 832 (Tex. 1968) ("Further, the classification limiting the applicability of Section 2b to counties with 650,000 or more inhabitants is not unreasonable, because this classification includes all counties to which the section would otherwise be applicable. . . . We do not have to consider the effect of the population bracket as if it discriminated against smaller counties with teaching hospital facilities, because it does not do so; and we may assume that the legislature would recognize the possibility of an unreasonable classification in the event a state-supported medical school were created in a smaller county at some time in the future.")
  • Cameron County v. Wilson, 326 S.W.2d 162, 167 (Tex. 1959) ("Because of the breadth and territorial extent of the State, its varied climatic and economic interests, and the attendant problems of transportation, regulation and general needs incident to a growing and active population, we have been and will again be faced with the need and demand for legislation which affects all the people of the State generally, yet which, in its direct operation will apply to one locality or to a comparatively small number of counties. . . . The scope of such legislation should not be restricted by expanding the nullifying effect of Article 3, § 56 of the Constitution.")
  • Smith v. Decker, 312 S.W.2d 632, 635-36 (Tex. 1958) (citation omitted) ("However, it has long been held that the use of population brackets alone to direct legislation toward a particular county needing a particular type of legislation will not in itself save the law from being unconstitutional as a special law if the classification bears no reasonable relationship to the objects sought to be accomplished. There appears to be no logical or apparent reason for the exclusion from the Act of counties having cities of 100,000 to 349,999 inhabitants. There must be a substantial reason for the classification such as attempted here, otherwise the Act must fail.")
  • Rodriguez v. Gonzales, 227 S.W.2d 791, 793 (Tex. 1950) ("The primary purpose back of the adoption of this section was to secure that uniformity in the application of law which is essential to an ordered society. The section is not of doubtful construction, but is a plain mandate . . . . The prohibition is against any 'local or special law.' We are not concerned with any distinctions which may be drawn between a local law and a special law, for in our opinion the Act under review is both a local and a special law within the meaning of the constitutional provision. This is so clear to our minds that we shall not discuss the question at length.")
  • State v. McDonald, 220 S.W.2d 732, 733 (Tex.Civ.App.–Texarkana 1949, ref'd) (citations omitted) ("If above House Concurrent Resolution be susceptible of the construction that it was the intent to waive immunity from liability as urged by plaintiffs, such would lend no validity to this judgment, for such resolution is unconstitutional. . . . Appellees assert that the legislature in sessions after sessions has passed bills and resolutions, at times a field day, granting permission to people to sue the State for alleged negligent acts of agents and employees of the various departments of the State, and later has authorized payments of judgments recovered.")
  • State Highway Department v. Gorham, 162 S.W.2d 934, 937 (Tex. 1942) ("If the Act be construed as a special law, depriving the State of a defense in a particular case, it is unconstitutional, as being violative of Section 3 of the Texas Bill of Rights, which provides that all men shall have equal rights. It is also violative of Article III, Section 56, of our State Constitution, which provides that no local or special law shall be enacted where a general law can be made applicable. . . . It certainly was not the intention of the framers of our Constitution that the State should have certain defenses against some individuals, but not against others similarly situated.")
  • Ex parte Carson, 159 S.W.2d 126, 129 (Tex.Crim.App. 1942) ("History of legislation reveals to us a very early practice, having a persistent accelerated tendency, against which the framers of the Constitution were, undoubtedly, endeavoring to provide an insurmountable barrier in Section 56, Article 3 of our Constitution. The trading and trafficking in the passing of local and special laws resulting in special privileges and immunities may be viewed as one of the danger elements in all legislative bodies which consists of representatives from varied districts not affected always in all matters by the things which the other may do or not do.")
  • Anderson v. Wood, 152 S.W.2d 1084, 1087 (Tex. 1941) ("We can conceive of no reason why the Commissioners' Courts of counties with a population of less than 195,000 and those with populations in excess of 205,000 should have a right to employ county traffic officers, while the Commissioners' Court of Tarrant County, such county . . . . The necessity for the employment of traffic officers in Tarrant County appears to be as urgent as in counties of lesser population. The classification appears to be an arbitrary one bearing no relation to the subject of legislation, and as a consequence this particular section of the act is void as a local or special law.")
  • Miller v. El Paso County, 150 S.W.2d 1000, 1001 (Tex. 1941) ("It is intended to prevent the granting of special privileges and to secure uniformity of law throughout the State as far as possible. It is said that at an early period in many of the states the practice of enacting special and local laws became 'an efficient means for the easy enactment of laws for the advancement of personal rather than public interests, and encouraged the reprehensible practice of trading and 'logrolling.'' It was for the suppression of such practices that such a provision was adopted in this and many of the other states of the Union. 25 R.C.L., p. 820, § 68.")
  • Bexar County v. Tynan, 97 S.W.2d 467, 470-71 (Tex. 1936) ("Notwithstanding it is true that the Legislature may classify counties upon a basis of population for the purpose of fixing compensation of county and precinct officers, yet in doing so the classification must be based upon a real distinction, and must not be arbitrary or a device to give what is in substance a local or special law the form of a general law. . . . There are many things connected with the history of this bill in the Legislature which convincingly indicate that the House and Senate regarded it as purely a local bill, but we do not deem it necessary to enumerate them here.")
  • Lower Colorado River Authority v. McCraw, 83 S.W.2d 629, 636 (Tex. 1935) ("In the first place, it is settled that a statute is not local or special, within the meaning of this constitutional provision, even though its enforcement is confined to a restricted area, if persons or things throughout the state are affected thereby, or if it operates upon a subject that the people at large are interested in. Stephensen v. Wood, 119 Tex. 564, 34 S.W.2d 246. An examination of this act convinces us that it operates upon a subject that the state at large is interested in. In fact, the business and operation of this district is not restricted to a particular area.")
  • Allison v. State, 76 S.W.2d 527, 528 (Tex.Crim.App. 1934) ("We see nothing in the provisions of chapter 28, Acts Regular Session, 37th Legislature (1921), creating the county court at law No. one for Tarrant county, violative of any provision of our Constitution. The law creating said court is and was not a local or special law, such as is forbidden by the terms of section 56, art. 3, of our Constitution. While it is true of this, as of all courts, that the law creating same necessarily fixes territorial limits to its jurisdiction, the fact that such territorial limit is one or a number of counties, in no way operates to deprive such law of its character as a general law.")
  • Smith v. State, 49 S.W.2d 739, 743-44 (Tex.Crim.App. 1932) ("Again, the effort of the Legislature, by amending [the relevant statute], after the census of 1930 disclosed that McLennan county had by virtue of increased population passed beyond its operation, to hold McLennan county within the purview of the act, manifests, under the decisions, a purpose, by a pretended classification, to evade the constitutional inhibition, and, under the guise of such classification, to enact a law designed for McLennan county alone. . . . Hence the opinion is expressed that a violation of the provisions of article 3, § 56, of the Constitution is manifested.")
  • City of Fort Worth v. Bobbitt, 36 S.W.2d 470, 472-73 (Tex. 1931) ("[W]e do not mean to hold that an act general in its nature and terms would be in contravention of the above constitutional provisions, merely because at the time of its passage it only affects one city; in fact we hold to the contrary. We think, however, that an act which is so drawn that by its plain and explicit provisions it is made to apply to one city only in the state, and can never in any contingency apply to any other city, is just as repugnant to the constitutional provisions under discussion as though the name of the city to which the act does apply had been written into the act in the first instance.")
  • Phil H. Pierce Co. v. Watkins, 263 S.W. 905, 906 (Tex. 1924) ("Chapter 105 [] under its terms and under the well-recognized rules of law is not a special or local law. . . . It is not asserted that the classification in this instance is a fictitious one. That it is a bona fide classification, based upon facts and real conditions, is apparent in its terms, and supported by the fact that it applies and is operative over a number of civil district courts in many of the large counties of the state. The law is a valid exercise of legislative authority, and well designed to have a wholesome effect upon the dispatch and finality of litigation in the courts in our congested centers.")
  • O'Brien v. Amerman, 247 S.W. 270, 271 (Tex. 1922) ("It is urged in support of the first two grounds of attack that the law was enacted for application by the city of Houston alone, between that port and the Gulf, when the conditions . . . . It seems obvious that the number of pilots and the need of careful and strict supervision of pilotage would increase with the size of the port and the extension of its terminal water transportation facilities. Classification of pilots according to port population and municipal terminal facilities, having a reasonable basis and operating uniformly on those coming within the same class, violates no provision of the Constitution.")
  • Bell County v. Hall, 153 S.W. 121, 122 (Tex. 1913) ("The honorable Court of Civil Appeals for the Third district held on this appeal that the act . . . . Upon a careful consideration of the question, we concur in this conclusion, and do not regard it necessary to supplement the able opinion written in the case by Chief Justice Key. In relieving Bell county from the operation of the general law, this act, in effect, changed the administration of its affairs in every particular provided by the general law, and thus by indirection regulated its affairs as effectually as though it had directly and affirmatively prescribed a different method for their management.")
  • Clark v. Finley, 54 S.W. 343, 345 (Tex. 1899) ("Indeed, it is perhaps the exception when a statute is found which applies to every person or thing alike. . . . The tendency of the recent decisions upon the subject, as it seems to us, is to drift into refinements that are rather more specious than profitable. It is said in some of the cases that the classification must be reasonable; in others, that it must not be unreasonable or arbitrary, etc. If it is meant by this that the legislature cannot evade the prohibition of the constitution as to special laws by making a law applicable to a pretended class, which is, in fact, no class, we concur in the proposition.")
  • Lytle v. Halff, 12 S.W. 610, 614 (Tex. 1889) ("Every law fixing the territory which shall constitute a judicial district is necessarily local in its character, but the power of the legislature to do this is expressly recognized. The creation of two judicial districts in a county operates no further towards the regulation of the affairs of the county than does the establishment of one, and it seems to us that the act in question is not within the meaning of the constitution on regulating the affairs of a county; for that paragraph of the section referred to has application to such affairs as are common to all the subdivisions of the state referred to in it.")
  • Beyman v. Black, 47 Tex. 558, 566 (1877) (citation omitted) ("Indeed, it has not been argued that the act violates any of the [specific] provisions of the constitutional amendments of January, 1874, forbidding . . . and that 'the Legislature shall pass general laws providing for the cases before enumerated in this section, and for all other cases which, in its judgment, may be provided by general laws.' Even if the law could be regarded as a local or special act, its passage would be taken as the judgment of the Legislature, that the case was not one which could be provided for by a general law, and their decision is conclusive of that question.")
  • Orr v. Rhine, 45 Tex. 345, 352-53 (1876) ("[W]hen this statute was passed, May 26, 1873, there was no constitutional restriction upon the power of the Legislature to enact local laws. There was, at least, no explicit and direct restriction of this kind until the ratification of the amendments to the Constitution, January 26, 1874. It is, we think, a rule of construction, to be generally adhered to in the construction of constitutions as well as statutes, that they operate prospectively, unless the words employed, or when the object in view and the nature and character of the provision, clearly show that it was intended to have a retrospective operation.")

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