Civics Education
Local Government in Virginia

The Limits of Power- Dillon’s Rule v. Home Rule

The powers that municipalities can exercise are governed by: local charters and ordinances, the state constitution, state law, federal law, and federal and state court decisions. Local governments, unlike states, are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. State governments are the architects of local government. The powers that localities in Virginia can exercise are constrained by a doctrine known as Dillon’s Rule, a legal rule expounded by an Iowa judge in the late 19th century.

According to Dillon’s Rule, localities are “tenants at will” of the legislature and can exercise only those powers expressly granted by the legislature, those powers implied by expressly granted powers, and those powers essential to the operation of the municipal corporation. A practical consequence of Dillon’s Rule is that any municipality wishing to expand its powers or, in some instances, to clarify its existing powers may be required to ask the General Assembly to amend its charter, create a new charter, or obtain special legislation or general legislation of specific application.

Dillon’s Rule is not absolute. Section 15.2-1102 of the Code of Virginia confers on cities and towns broad powers.

Home rule, as practiced in other states, is often held to be the opposite of Dillon’s Rule. The home rule doctrine allows a municipality to make local decisions that are not specifically denied by - or in conflict with - state law or policy.

All powers granted to Virginia local governments are vested in an elected governing body, city or town council, or county board of supervisors.

Did You Know? The Code of Virginia states that governing bodies shall be composed of between three and eleven members. Most governing bodies have four-year terms of office. City and town councils are presided over by mayors who may be directly elected or chosen by the council. Counties are presided over by a chair of the board of supervisors.

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