In Virginia, if a local school division wants to begin the school year earlier than the day after Labor Day, officials have to petition the state government, specifically the Virginia Department of Education.
If a county wants to ban the application of biosolids — sludge, as the end product of water treatment plants is more commonly known — on local farms, they’re out of luck.
If a city council wanted to forbid the carrying of firearms — openly or with a concealed-carry permit — in any city office building, too bad, they couldn’t do it.
If a city council decided to remove its statues to Civil War generals, erected in the 1920s at the height of Jim Crow segregation, tough, that’s impossible in Virginia.
And why? Because Virginia is one of the more than two dozen states that adheres to the Dillon Rule and has for more than a century.
What’s the Dillon Rule, you ask? Good question, because few people other than government officials and political and history nerds likely have ever heard of it.
Back in 1868, Chief Justice John Forrest Dillon of the Iowa Supreme Court penned a ruling that created a theory of state/local government that’s come to be known as the Dillon Rule. At its heart is the theory that the state government is superior to local governments, that towns, cities and counties are creatures of the state government and have only the legal rights that the state bestows upon them. No more, no less.
Hence, the Labor Day school opening law the General Assembly enacted in 1986 that prevented local school divisions from opening before Labor Day. Or the crackdown in the early 2000s, on localities, including many in Central Virginia, that tried to ban sludge — “biosolids,” as the industry liked to call it — from being applied to farm fields: Companies were giving it to farmers as free “fertilizer” even though there were numerous scientific studies that raised serious health and environmental concerns. Or the efforts by Charlottesville’s elected leaders to take down statues of Civil War generals on public property. All, and more through the decades, fell victim to the Dillon Rule.
But are the days of Virginia being a Dillon Rule state numbered? That’s the conjecture of some people as Richmond prepares for Democrats to assume control of the General Assembly which, along with control of the governor’s office, is something that’s not happened in the commonwealth for 26 years.
There’s an argument to made for maintaining the Dillon Rule as it pertains to environmental or business regulations. What sense, for example, would it make for one county to ban sludge when just next door another county welcomes it? Why should businesses theoretically face different rules from one locality to another. But then what does it matter to one county or city if a locality halfway across the state decides to remove its Civil War statues or forbid firearms in its own city hall? Why should a local government have to go on bended knee to Richmond for permission to open its schools earlier than Labor Day?
When the new legislature convenes next month, it’s guaranteed there will be a world of changes in store, some minor and some major. We believe that, in the 21st century, it would be a worthwhile endeavor for the Assembly to consider modifying and perhaps loosening the Dillon Rule strictures local governments have long struggled with.