There are two different legal theories concerning the governing authority of local governments: Dillon’s rule and the Cooley Doctrine (more commonly referred to as the home rule doctrine). States may apply only Dillon’s rule or home rule to local governments, or they may apply a combination of Dillon’s rule and home rule. Local governments in most states operate exclusively under Dillon’s rule or a combination of Dillon’s rule and home rule. Texas local government operates under a combination of Dillon’s rule and home rule.
Direct Link: Home Rule
Dillon’s Rule: State Preemption & Narrow Local Authority
“Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control. ” – John Forrest Dillon in Clinton v. Center Rapids and the Missouri River Railroad, 1868
According to Dillon’s rule, the state government has authority and supremacy over its respective local governments, which are considered extensions of state government. Local governments, as extensions of state government, must be structured per state requirements and can only provide those services that the state authorizes them to provide. “Dillon’s Rule states that if there is a reasonable doubt whether a power has been conferred to a local government, then the power has not been conferred” (National League of Cities, 2016). Because local governments exist at the pleasure of the state, the state can step in and dissolve them, reorganize them, or take them over. Furthermore, because local governments are essentially extensions of state government, states are held accountable for the actions taken by their respective local governments.
Dillon’s rule resulted from concerns about local corruption and fiscal irresponsibility. Dillon’s rule is often viewed as consistent with the principles of federalism outlined in the U.S. Constitution, including a limited federal government and relatively strong states. “The Founders designed the federal government to be dependent on the states, while the states could stand on their own” (Russell & Bostrom, 2016). Dillon’s rule extends this dependence on the states to the local level. As such, federal courts have often ruled in support of this doctrine of governing authority of local governments.
Home Rule: Broad Local Authority
“. . . local government is [a] matter of absolute right; and the state cannot take it away.” – Thomas M. Cooley in People v. Hurlbut, 1871
Under the home rule doctrine, local governments have local autonomy and an inherent right to self-government. Home-rule provisions allow local governments flexibility in addressing the needs of their citizens, without requiring specific delegations of power from the state. Local governments operating under home rule have some discretion to make decisions about their structure, enact local laws, and make decisions relating to taxation without state interference. The extent of a local government’s discretion is bound by a state’s constitutional or statutory laws and is often spelled out within a local charter.
During the late 1800s and 1900s, states began to pass legislation and/or include constitutional provisions allowing for home rule in local governments in response to the inability of local governments to respond to increasingly complex problems.
Comparing Dillon’s Rule & Home Rule
Dillon’s rule and home rule are contrasting theories; the advantages of home rule can be seen as offsetting the disadvantages of Dillon’s rule, and vice versa.
- Allows for uniform taxation, environmental regulation, and land use, which benefits businesses
- Reduces arbitrary risks that can be taken by local governments
- Prevents cities from straying too far from legitimate authority as recognized by the U.S. Constitution
- Reduces local corruption
- Gives government the ability to make decisions based on local needs, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach
- Provides local control and freedom to self-govern, which may empower citizens
- Allows local governments to address financial difficulties by developing new revenue streams
- Frees up the state legislature to focus on statewide issues