Home rule in the United States generally signifies a shift of governing power from the state to county or municipal governments to implement principles of local self-government. There is no set standard or agreed upon criteria for determining whether a local government has home rule, as different states grant varying degrees of local autonomy to local governments. However, home rule often represents a decrease in state interference in local affairs and an ability to exercise some functions without a prior express delegation of authority from the state.
Generally, when a state contains general law and chartered local governments, the counties and municipalities governed under a charter have more autonomy or home rule than those governed solely under the general law in the same state. However, the lack of a charter does not always signify the lack of home rule authority. Several states grant some degree of home rule to local governments organized under the general law.
Home rule may relate to a choice of the form of a local government, the authority to determine certain substantive policies, or even the ability to differ from state statutes related to municipal affairs.
Brief history of Dillon's rule and home rule
The issue of home rule often arises when a county or municipality attempts to exercise a power, and the courts must determine whether authority exists under state law. The historical approach to this question of statutory interpretation is called Dillon's Rule. Judge John Forrest Dillon served on the Iowa Supreme Court from 1863 to 1869, before being appointed to the Federal Eighth Judicial Circuit. He was also a noted legal scholar, publishing extensively on municipal law. In two opinions for the Iowa Supreme Court he laid out a rule of law which was subsequently adopted by other state supreme courts and eventually approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Dillon's Rule states that local government powers are quite limited and only extend to those powers which are: 1) granted in express words; 2) necessarily implied or necessarily incident to the powers expressly granted; and 3) absolutely essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation – not simply convenient, but indispensable. The rule also states that any reasonable doubt by the court as to whether a power has been granted will be ruled against the local government.
Home rule represents a counter-argument against this limited autonomy of local governments and state interference in local affairs. States began to amend their constitutions and state statutes to provide local governments more autonomy over local affairs. This occurred, and continues to be implemented, in different forms. One of the first steps in some states was to prohibit or limit issues on which the state legislature could pass special or local laws, which are laws affecting only a specific municipality. States also began to authorize home rule charters, essentially reversing Dillon's rule such that a municipality has a power unless it is expressly denied by state law.
"In 1875, Missouri became the first state to adopt home rule by including in its new constitution a home rule entitlement for cities over 100,000 population. In 1879, California became the second state to authorize home rule when its new constitution was adopted. Other states conferring home rule rights for cities during the remaining years of the 19th century included Minnesota and Washington."
- New Mexico Municipal League, Dillon's Rule and the Birth of Home Rule
- Stilwell, Jason, The Sales Tax Revenue Implications and Administrative Efficacy of Colorado Municipal Home Rule, p.5-7, 2000 (citing others)
- League of California Cities, Charter Cities
- National Association of Counties, Dillon's Rule or Not?
- Brookings, Is Home Rule The Answer? Clarifying The Influence Of Dillon's Rule On Growth Management
- Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, John Forrest Dillon, University of Iowa Press Digital Edition
- Colorado Municipal League, A History of Home Rule