BEFORE ROY NOBLE LEE, P.J.; ROBERTSON AND SULLIVAN, JJ.
ROBERTSON, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:
At its core this case presents the question whether a board of supervisors of a county in this state has authority to secure group life, medical and accident insurance for the benefit of employees of fee paid officials such as chancery clerks and circuit clerks, or both, and pay the premiums for such insurance out of general county funds. The Circuit Court answered the question in the affirmative. Being of the opinion that the Circuit Court was by and large correct in its reasoning, we affirm.
This civil action has its genesis in the year 1980 and more particularly in the October 1980 decision of the Board of Supervisors of Warren County, Mississippi, to procure group health and life insurance for the benefit of all county employees. Included in the program were 183 individuals working in various offices and departments of the county. Of that 183, some 10 such individuals are in controversy here: seven employees of the Chancery Clerk of Warren County and three employees of the Circuit Clerk, all of whom are officially designated as deputy clerks. Miss. Code Ann. 9-5-123, -133 (1972).
From October of 1980 until November of 1984, the only event of consequence was that the cost of insurance premiums paid by the county roughly doubled. At that time a new county comptroller came on the scene and suggested that the Board of Supervisors had no authority to pay premiums for such insurance for the employees of the chancery and circuit clerks. The Board of Supervisors reviewed the matter, determined that the comptroller was correct and demanded that the two clerks reimburse the county for funds expended by the county for insurance premiums for the employees of the clerks' offices, but not for the clerks themselves. The reason for this action was that the deputy clerks were not county employees but rather the personal employees of the respective clerks.
In response, Chancery Clerk Mark J. Chaney, under protest, paid to the county $11,722.53. Similarly, Circuit Clerk George Culkin, under protest, reimbursed the county for the sum of $6,351.03. Upon making these payments, Chaney and Culkin on December 2, 1984, brought this action in the Circuit Court of Warren County demanding, inter alia, a declaration that the Warren County Board of Supervisors had the authority to procure and pay for such health and life insurance for the benefit of deputy clerks and that the Supervisors had effectively exercised that authority. Further, Chaney and Culkin demanded reimbursement for the sums they had paid under protest. In an opinion released February 8, 1985, the Circuit Court held that the deputy clerks were county employees to the extent necessary that the Board of Supervisors had authority to procure the insurance for their benefit and pay for same out of general county funds. The Circuit Court further held that the Board of Supervisors had exercised this authority in the premises and, therefore, judgment was entered in favor of Chaney and Culkin in the amounts of $11,722.53 and $6,351.03, respectively.
Warren County has appealed to this Court urging that, as a matter of law, the judgment below be reversed and rendered.
Because the case has statewide implications, we have invited briefs of and from the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi, the Board of Supervisors Association, the Chancery Clerk's Association and the Circuit Clerk's Association. The Attorney General has filed a brief urging reversal. The Circuit Clerk's Association has filed a brief urging affirmance. The Chancery Clerk's Association has adopted the brief filed on behalf of Appellee Chaney and has urged affirmance. The Board of Supervisors Association has made no filing.
There are two questions which are not before us: (1) Whether the legislature has the authority to empower boards of supervisors to make expenditures from general county funds for insurance premiums for the benefit of employees of the circuit clerk or chancery clerk, and (2) whether the legislature ought or should exercise such authority. On this latter score, the briefs filed on behalf of Warren County and the Attorney General at numerous points have found irresistible the argument supporting their obvious view that the law shouldn't allow what the Circuit Court has held it allows.
Moreover, there can be no serious question but that the Warren County Board of Supervisors has in fact, for the period October 1980 to November 1984, effectively procured group life, medical and accident insurance for the benefit of county employees, including employees of the offices of Chancery Clerk and Circuit Clerk. We do not understand the Appellant Supervisors to question seriously the Circuit Court's ruling that in fact the Supervisors had procured the insurance for the benefit of the individuals in controversy.
The question presented - in our view, the sole question - is whether the Board of Supervisors of Warren County had lawful authority to do what it did (and what it obviously now wishes it had not done). In that regard we consult the enactments of our legislature, for it is well recognized that a board of supervisors possesses only that legal power which has been vested in it by statute. See H. K. Porter Co., Inc. v. Board of Supervisors of Jackson County, 324 So.2d 746, 754 (Miss.1975). Our touchtone is Miss. Code Ann. 25-15-101 (Supp.1985), which, in pertinent part, provides:
The governing board of any county . . . are hereby authorized and empowered in their discretion to negotiate for and secure for all or specified groups of employees and their dependants of such county . . . a policy or policies of group
insurance covering the life, salary protection, health, accident and hospitalization . . . of such of its employees and their dependants as may desire such insurance. [Emphasis supplied] All agree that, if the board of supervisors has the authority suggested here, that authority must be found in Section 25-15-101.
The Supervisors and the Attorney General employ varying rationales en route to their ultimate premise - that deputy clerks are the personal employees of the circuit and chancery clerks, respectively. They note that the salaries of deputy clerks are paid from the personal funds of the circuit and chancery clerks, and that the circuit and chancery clerks are vested with sole authority to hire and fire. Rut these matters may be so and the deputy clerks still within the scope of Section 25-15-101, a matter to be determined by reference to what the legislature hath enacted and not the generic nature of deputy clerks. We give to a statute (or any other rule of law, for that matter) that meaning which best fits its language, history and spirit recognizing the electromagnetic force of positive principles embedded in other rules. See Dworkin, Law's Empire 313-54 (1986).
Our task is ascertainment of the best meaning we may attribute to the words" all or specified groups of employees . . . of such county. "*fn1 In seeking the meaning which best fits this wording, we consider of great importance the language of the statute which makes the exercise of the authority granted discretionary with the board of supervisors. Because deputy clerks perform valuable services from which the public benefits, good sense attends allowing, though not mandating, boards of supervisors to augment the rewards given those deputies by affording such insurance coverage. Conversely, it is difficult to imagine on what rationale the board ought be prohibited such discretionary authority. Certainly not on grounds that the salaries of the deputies are paid from personal funds of the clerks nor that the clerks have the exclusive right to hire and fire. The fee basis for financing the offices of circuit and ...