Dillon’s Rule: Should it Stay or Should it Go?


As one of the central principles that guide policy making decisions of local jurisdictions, Dillon’s Rule (state control of local government) is an important concept in understanding government in the Commonwealth. Students will read an essay about Dillon’s Rule, analyze statutes and ordinances that delineate local and state government powers, and respond to one of four case studies where Dillon’s Rule affects citizens in Virginia. In the culminating activity, students will write a letter to their legislator explaining their support or opposition to Dillon’s Rule.



Activity 1

To begin the lesson, have students complete Handout #1: Unusual Virginia Laws. This handout is designed to encourage students to think about the statutes and ordinances that exist throughout Virginia today and what gives local and state governments the power to make and enforce laws.

To provide students with background knowledge, have students read Handout #2: Dillon’s Rule by Clay Writ and answer the questions on Handout #3: Dillon’s Rule by Clay Writ, Student Response Questions.

Activity 2

To help students explore and understand the expressed powers counties, cities, and towns have under Dillon’s Rule, have students complete Handout #4: Virginia Codes. To complete Handout #4, students will use the information provided in Handout #5:Virginia Codes Powers of Counties or Handout #6: Virginia Codes Powers of Cities and Towns (choose the one that applies to your jurisdiction).

Although Handouts #5 and #6 provide an overview of powers of local governments, the Virginia General Assembly Legislative Information System website provides a more in-depth description of the powers granted local governments.

After groups have completed the handout, each group reports the results to the class. During group presentations, students should focus on explaining the rationale for the choices they made.


Activity 3

Once students have a working knowledge of the powers granted local governments, have them again work in groups to complete Handouts #7A–7D: From the Desk of the Attorney General.

Assign each group one of four letters to read, discuss, and complete the group and individual response questions.

Each group will present information concerning the proposed ordinance, the response of the attorney general, and their own group response to the decision of the attorney general to the class.

While groups are giving their presentations, students will take notes about the ordinances and the attorney general’s response. Students will use their notes to write a letter to a state legislator.

Activity 4

The concluding activity is Handout #8: Letter to Your Legislator. Students will write a letter to their state legislator in which they explain their support or opposition to a reversal of Dillon’s Rule. The letter requires students to use information they have learned and gathered from the previous activities to support their opinions.

Background Information

What is Dillon’s Rule? This is often a complicated concept for students to understand and is one of the central principles that guides policy-making decisions of local jurisdictions. Unlike home-rule states such as Missouri, Virginia is a Dillon’s Rule state. In comparison, home-rule states allow local governments to use inherent power to govern according to the will of the electorate, while a Dillon’s Rule state restricts the inherent power of local governments. In a Dillon’s Rule state, local governments only have the expressed powers given to it by the state constitution and statutes.

Judge John F. Dillon, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, distrusted local governments and believed officials were corrupt and ill equipped to govern. Judge Dillon espoused his beliefs in a decision in 1868. This case went on to be upheld by the U.S Supreme Court in City of Clinton v. Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad Company, 24 Iowa 455 (1868). Following the Supreme Court decision, Judge Dillon’s assertions were adopted by many states, including Virginia.

Further background information is available:

Dillon’s Rule: Good or Bad for Local Governments –League of Women Voters.  

Handout #9: Background Information for Students, provides students definitions of key terms and explanation of key facts.


To conclude the lesson and allow students to evaluate the effectiveness of Dillon’s Rule, each student will write a letter to their state legislator in which he/she supports or opposes rescinding Dillon’s Rule.


This lesson is designed for students of varying academic levels. To help students who struggle with comprehension, they are able to work in small groups. The teacher can either allow students to form their own groups or create groups for the student that consist of students of varying academic levels.

Resources for this activity: