PHOTO: Virginia State Capitol

The Dillon Rule gives Virginia legislators power over localities.

THERE are many repercussions looming in the Democrats’ upcoming takeover of Virginia’s General Assembly. With majorities in both houses and control of the governor’s mansion, high on the list of potential losers is a legal precedent handed down by an Iowa judge 151 years ago.

Dillon’s Rule (or the Dillon Rule, as it’s best know to Virginians), the work of Iowa Supreme Court Judge John Forrest Dillon in 1868, says no locality can do much of anything that isn’t permitted by the state legislature. (Ironically, the Iowa judge’s ruling was aimed at big-city corruption, which was rampant at the time.)

Virginia is one of 40 states that apply the Dillon Rule in some form to rein in localities.



One point at which some Virginia cities and the Dillon rule butt heads is Confederate monuments. Several localities would love to take them down, but they can’t unless Richmond says so.

The likely thrust by Democratic lawmakers won’t be to do away with the Dillon Rule altogether, but to make exceptions, especially in the case of statue removal.

Sally Hudson, a newly elected delegate from Charlottesville (and, ironically, a native of Iowa), made removing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park one of her campaign promises. She and others in the Democratic majority want to give the right to take down monuments back to localities.

There are other rights, such as limiting guns in public buildings, that could also be turned over to local officials. It will be interesting to see how far the new majority is willing and able to go in watering down Dillon.

There were and are good reasons for the Dillon Rule in some instances. There has to be some regularity in state laws involving taxes, public safety, the environment and a host of other issues. Complete freedom for each locality to make its own rules could be chaotic.

However, the rule has been abused by state legislatures in the past, such as using it to keep cities and towns from taking down statues erected to glorify an armed rebellion meant to preserve enslavement of part of the population.

One rule does not fit all. As Hudson said in an interview with Courthouse News, “What works in rural Abingdon and what works in urban Arlington is going to be different.”

We encourage the legislature in its efforts to better balance the power between the state and its localities. The Dillon Rule was not delivered on tablets from Mount Sinai. Unlike the words on those Confederate monuments, it is not etched in stone.

But giving up that power looks a lot different when it’s your party that’s now calling the shots.

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