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Dillon Rule Essential to Rural VA

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

There has been much talk lately in Academia and in parts of Northern Virginia, about the desirability of repealing the Dillon Rule in favor of Home Rule. The focus of those discussions has been on the need of wealthy local municipal governments to be able to raise revenue by levying taxes without having to go to the General Assembly to ask “Mother-may-I?”

“The first part of Dillon's Rule states that local governments have only three types of powers:

  • those granted in express words,

  • those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted, and

  • those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation, not simply convenient, but indispensable.

The second part of Dillon's Rule states that if there is any reasonable doubt whether a power has been conferred on a local government, then the power has not been conferred. This is the rule of strict construction of local government powers.” Clay Wirt. "Dillon's Rule." Virginia Town & City. August 1989, volume 24 number 8, pages 12 to 15.

In fact, one source states: “Dillon's Rule is derived from written decision by Judge John F. Dillon of Iowa in 1868. It is a cornerstone of American municipal law. It maintains that a political subdivision of a state is connected to the state as a child is connected to a parent. Dillon's Rule is used in interpreting state law when there is a question of whether or not a local government has a certain power. Dillon's Rule narrowly defines the power of local governments.” Clay Wirt. "Dillon's Rule." Virginia Town & City. August 1989, volume 24 number 8, pages 12 to 15.

Professor Richard Schragger of the University of Virginia School of Law, is an advocate for a change to Home Rule after years of studying how cities and states interact. He is the author of the book “City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age.” He has also written the following Law Review Articles supporting his positionThe Attack on American Cities,” published in the Texas Law Review, and “Federalism, Metropolitanism, and the Problem of States,” published in the Virginia Law Review.

If you look at the titles of the book and of the articles, you will see that Professor Schragger is entirely focused on the impact of the Dillon Rule on urban areas and cities.

Professor Schragger attributes our failure to evolve toward Home Rule to the fact that we have been slower to urbanize: “In part, this might be because, historically, Virginia did not have a major city that could push back against state power,” Schragger said. “But that is changing. As Northern and other parts of Virginia become increasingly urbanized, the desire for more local control also increases.”

Well Professor Schragger, let me introduce you to the parts of Virginia that are mostly rural and where the pressures placed on local governments don’t come from economic objectives or growing pains, but from social agendas largely espoused by small local churches and evangelical faith based alliances.

These groups have succeeded in getting local Supervisors to pass ordinances that would restrict the ability of Abortion Clinics to open using zoning ordinances to “protect the unborn” As you may recall, abortion is legal in Virginia.

This is not a new concept in rural Virginia. Many rural localities have attempted to declare themselves “gun sanctuaries”. The 2nd Amendment makes this both unnecessary and redundant. Lee County even passed a local law making it mandatory to arm school teachers. Then Attorney General, Mark Herring, had to come all the way from Richmond to explain the Dillon Rule to the local government officials who felt emboldened by local sentiment.

If Home Rule comes to Virginia, mandatory school prayer will likely be on the agenda in these rural areas, as will teaching creationism. Both would be clear violations of the 1st Amendment. Parents would be in charge of choosing school curriculum, insuring that students from rural areas will be unable to compete in a global marketplace. Classic and inclusive literature will be banned.

It’s no wonder that the urban/rural divide is so gaping when the folks who wield power are not even considering the ramifications that their actions may have in rural areas.

Yes, the Dillon Rule can appear to equate to parental control. For those of us who have had children, we know that some need more parenting than others.

I invite you to come out to the 9th Congressional District and get more acquainted with your rural neighbors. It’s easy to overlook people you’ve never met, and places you have never been.


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