Also referred to as local control, community autonomy, and self-governance, home rule is the principle that local governments in the American federal system should possess a high degree of discretionary authority in serving their communities. The contrast is with strong state government control over community public affairs. Legally, there is no inherent right of self-governance for American communities, because of the constitutional status of local governments as creatures of their states. To the degree that it exists, home rule is a result of politics, voter preferences, ideology, administrative convenience, and the willingness of state governments to delegate specific powers or allow broad authority to their local governments.
The home rule movement, associated with Progressive reform in American government, originated in the later half of the nineteenth century as a response to the corruption and inefficiency involved in excessive state interference in municipal affairs. How much authority to allow local governments since that time has been the central issue in state-local relationships, marked by ongoing debate on such issues as state mandates and flexible revenue sources.
Home rule is implemented by state constitutions and legislatures in several ways—granting municipalities (and counties, to a lesser extent) the ability to adopt their own charters with variable governmental frameworks, prohibitions on “special legislation” that applies only to single communities, generic rules for municipal formation, and broad grants of regulatory and corporate powers. By applying a liberal construction to constitutional language regarding local powers, the courts in many states also maintain the local control principle.
Home rule is a relative condition that differs by state, type of local government, type of power, and policy or program area. Today about four-fifths of all states grant their local units substantial but varying degrees of home rule. It is usually confined to general purpose governments, municipalities (townships in some states), and counties, excluding narrow purpose school and special districts. Because of their role as administrative agents of state government, counties are given less discretion than municipalities. States are most generous in allowing local authority over structural or government organization choices, but also grant varying discretion over service delivery, regulatory, personnel, and fiscal matters.
The philosophical argument for home rule is grounded in the virtues of grassroots democracy. This considers local governments as not only service delivery organizations; more fundamentally they are representative institutions and thus agents of their citizens. Pluralism and local needs are served by allowing communities within the same state to adopt different governance arrangements and public policies. On the other hand, the critique is that community political systems, if left to their own devices and reflecting the vicissitudes of local prejudice, can produce governmental outcomes that are arbitrary, discriminatory, and externally negative. Thus, there are federal and state constitutional and statutory restraints on local control, as applied in First Amendment, civil rights, environmental protection, and other arenas.
Alvin D. Sokolow
Last updated: 2006