Dillon’s Rule

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

This post is about Dillon’s Rule.

In general, what are the rights of a town to govern itself? In the United States, different states answer that question differently. Two ends on a spectrum of possible answers to that question are Home Rule and Dillon’s Rule:

Home Rule: The town may do anything that is not prohibited by federal or state constitutions or law.

Dillon’s Rule: The town may do only what is permitted to it by the state.

Dillon’s Rule is named for Judge John Forrest Dillon who wrote the following in an 1868 case when he was Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court:

Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.

(A town is a municipal corporation.)

Vermont is a strict Dillon’s Rule state. The language quoted above has been cited numerous times by the Vermont Supreme Court. This is a principle to always keep in mind when thinking about town government in Vermont: state law is supreme.

Of course, federal law is even more supreme than state law, but in my experience on the selectboard, it is seldom necessary to consult federal law. It is often necessary to consult state law.

Fortunately, the State of Vermont puts its laws online:

https://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/

Vermont law is organized into 33 titles. Many of the laws pertaining to towns are in Title 24 – Municipal and County Government. Titles are further subdivided into sections (§), which may be grouped into chapters and subchapters. Section 872 of Title 24 defines the general powers and duties of town selectboards. Vermont law is referred to as “Vermont Statutes Annotated” (V.S.A.). Thus the complete reference is 24 V.S.A. § 872.

Now, to add another wrinkle to this, some municipalities in Vermont have charters that are unique to that municipality. Municipal charters are also part of state law, and they are listed in Title 24 Appendix – Municipal Charters. If a municipality has a charter, the provisions of the charter supersede other provisions in state law. If a municipality does not have a charter, it just follows general state law.

The advantage of a charter is that it may include provisions not otherwise found in state law. The disadvantage of a charter is that any change in the charter requires approval of the legislature.

The Town of Cambridge does not have a charter. Nor does the Village of Jeffersonville. However, the Village of Cambridge has a charter which can be found in Chapter 213 of Title 24 Appendix.

To summarize: Because Vermont is a strict Dillon’s Rule state, the authority of town government comes from state government. Town government should be able to cite a section of state law, either its charter or otherwise, as the authority for any action the town takes.

For more information about Home Rule vs. Dillon’s Rule, and a chart showing how the various states line up on this matter, see this Wikipedia article:

Home Rule in the United States

Click here to go to the initial post in this series: “Learning about town government.”

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