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Dillon’s Rule

Last Updated: 2006

Named after nineteenth-century Ohio Judge John Forrest Dillon, who famously expounded the principle, Dillon’s Rule is a strict construction of the authority of local governments in the United States. The dictum builds on their legal foundation as “creatures” of their state governments, thus claiming a world of limited autonomy for municipalities and other local governments. Local powers thus are restricted to what state legislatures and constitutions expressly grant, what is necessary or implied by these delegated powers, and what is essential to the purposes of a municipal corporation. Any doubt as to what is permissible is to be resolved by the courts against local governments and in favor of state control. Local governments, according to Dillon, are “the mere tenants at will of their legislature” (City of Clinton v. Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad, 24 Iowa 455, 475 [1868]).

Judge Dillon expressed what was the conventional legal wisdom in the nineteenth century, reflecting also the assertion of state legislative powers in many areas and the widespread distrust of the competence and honesty of municipal governments. His comprehensive and forceful formulation appeared in the five editions of his Commentaries on the Law of Municipal Corporations (first published in 1872) and influenced generations of attorneys and courts. Dillon’s Rule became a metaphor for the paternalism of state government over local issues, in which state legislatures operated as the effective governing bodies for localities. With little if any discretion to set their own course, local governments continually went to their state capitals as supplicants, seeking legislation for changes both ordinary and extraordinary—for example, to increase city council and municipal officer salaries, collect certain fees, and reorganize departments.

Another well-known midwestern judge in the nineteenth century, Thomas McIntyre Cooley of Michigan, expounded a contrary view of municipal authority and hence the state-local relationship. Cooley wrote that localities had an inherent right to self-government, one that could be traced to Anglo-Saxon traditions and that appeared in the governance of some of the colonial communities during the English settlement of the country. As compared to Dillon’s strictly legalistic and state-oriented interpretation, Cooley’s theory was based on extraconstitutional elements of popular sovereignty and the grassroots foundations of American democracy. Although cited by courts in a number of states, Cooley’s doctrine never reached the level of acceptance and application achieved by Dillon’s Rule.

The grasp of Dillon’s Rule was gradually relaxed over the years as many states delegated varying degrees of discretionary authority to their municipal and county governments, including the ability to adopt home rule charters with structural flexibility. Still, Dillon’s Rule continues to outline the basic state-local legal relationship: state governments are the ultimate source of local authority, whether restricted or expansive.

SEE ALSO: Home Rule


John Forest Dillon, Commentaries on the Law of Municipal Corporations, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1873).