In the United States, the federal and state governments get their powers from the Constitution. The states have sovereignty; they have guaranteed rights and powers, and cannot be dissolved or altered without their consent. However, the Constitution is completely silent about local governments. Local governments are extensions of the state, and derive their powers from the state government–they have no rights, and can exercise only the powers that the state government chooses to give them.
Under Dillon’s Rule (named after 1868 Iowa judge John Dillon), local governments can only exercise powers explicitly granted to them by state law, or powers that are implied to exist by those they are explicitly given. For example, if the state government gives local governments the power to tax property, it is implied that the local government also has the power to seize property if the tax is not paid. Essentially, under Dillon’s Rule, local governments can only do what the state government explicitly allows them to. This legal principle was upheld by the Supreme Court in Hunter v. Pittsburgh (1901).
States vary wildly in how much power they choose to grant localities. Some states, including most of New England, have very loose reins, while others keep tight control over their local governments. Alabama, for example, is a Dillon’s Rule state that grants its local governments authority through amendments to its state constitution. The 482nd Amendment to the Alabama Constitution specifically authorizes the Limestone county commission to “provide for the disposal of dead farm animals, and the excavating of human graves.” This incredibly detailed level of control is a relic of the Jim Crow era, intended to ensure that even if a local government gained a pro-civil rights majority, the state would easily be able to stifle its power.
However, other state governments are far more lenient, so much so that they may choose to grant their localities Home Rule statues. Under Home Rule, the local government can do anything that state law or the United States Constitution doesn’t explicitly forbid them from doing. However, the state government may still choose to overrule decisions made by a local government, a process known as preemption. If the state government does not like what a Home Rule city is doing, they can simply pass a law forbidding the city from doing it.
One example of a Home Rule local government being preempted by the state government is the notorious North Carolina “Bathroom Bill” or House Bill 2, a bill passed by the state legislature in order to overturn a Charlotte City Council ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing. The bill would also prevent any other North Carolina localities from passing similar legislation in future. Multiple local governments passed resolutions criticizing the bill and calling for it to be repealed, but while HB2 was controversial, that was the extent of the action they could take against it. Home Rule may grant local governments more flexibility, but it does not negate the fact that they ultimately have no rights.
So, under Dillon’s Rule, local governments can only do those things state law explicitly allows them to do. Under Home Rule, local governments can do anything except what higher law explicitly forbids them from doing. But no matter how much power the state government decides to give them, local governments ultimately derive their powers from the state, and are helpless to its will. The state giveth, and the state taketh away.