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What is the Dillon Rule and Why Should The Trucking Industry Care?

The age-old argument of where the power of lawmaking should reside – state or local – began with a man named John Forrest Dillion, who was Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.   In 1868 he stated a rule of law known as the Dillon Rule doctrine that has come to govern how 39 states, including Virginia, interact with local and municipal governments within those states.  In Merriam v. Moody’s Executors, 25 Iowa 163, 170 (Iowa. 1868), Judge Dillon stated:

It is a general and undisputed proposition of law that a municipal corporation possesses and can exercise the following powers, and no others: first, those granted in express words; second, those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the power expressly granted; third, those essential to the accomplishment of the declared objects and purposes of the corporation – not simply convenient, but indispensable; fourth, any fair, reasonable, substantial doubt concerning the existence of power is resolved by the courts against the corporation.

Stated simply, the Dillon Rule means that local governments are limited to the powers expressly granted to them by their state. As a Dillon Rule state, local jurisdictions in the Commonwealth are prohibited from adopting laws or ordinances without specific permission from the General Assembly to do so.

In recent years, local governments have waged a battle against application of the Dillon Rule in Virginia without much success.  Their efforts have been turned back by General Assemblies that have understood the importance of the Dillon Rule to maintaining Virginia’s status as one of the best states in the country for business.  However, support for the Dillon Rule may be fading as local governments have become entangled in the debates over confederate monuments and guns.

To understand this shift, let’s look at recent local ordinances that have been overturned or otherwise due to Dillion’s Rule.

The City of Charlottesville recently challenged the efficacy of Dillion’s Rule and lost.  In response to growing calls for removal of Confederate statues and monuments, the Charlottesville City Council voted in 2017 to remove statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  A group of residents sued the City to overturn Council’s vote to remove the statues arguing that Council had gone beyond its authority.  A circuit court judge sitting in Charlottesville agreed with the group of residents and overruled the Council’s decision. The judge’s ruling was premised on the Dillion Rule.  

Similarly, local governments have been limited in their efforts to enact ordinances and restrictions on guns within their borders.  The city councils in Falls Church and Alexandria have sought in recent years to implement local laws aimed at limiting gun use or otherwise restricting guns in public spaces.

In late 2018, the Falls Church City Council removed 15 sections of City Code that limited gun use in the city because they violated the Dillon Rule.   During debate on the action, the Council expressed considerable frustration over the long-standing constraints it faces on limiting gun use in the City because of the Dillon Rule.

The City of Alexandria learned the same lesson when residents there inquired about enacting gun restriction laws after a group of guns rights activists and others marched through Old Towne Alexandria last September openly carrying shotguns and rifles.  Frightened and frustrated residents asked Alexandria police if laws were being broken and if the police could do anything to stop the march but were informed that Virginia is an “open carry” state.  As such, the city of Alexandria is at the mercy of the General Assembly with respect to gun restrictions.

Is the Dillion Rule in danger of being overturned? The shift in political and geographic power in the 2020 General Assembly has given opponents of the Dillon Rule hope.

Legislation to loosen Dillon Rule restrictions on local governments’ authority to regulate guns and make decisions on Confederate statues and monuments have a good chance of passing this session.   The business community is concerned that such actions will start Virginia down the path of rolling back or outright ending the Dillion Rule, which will lead to conflicting regulations across the state that will increase the cost of doing business in Virginia.

This is particularly true for the trucking industry and the Virginia businesses it serves.  Those of you who were involved in trucking since the 80s will remember the industry’s fight to end the patchwork of state taxes, registration fees and regulations that burdened interstate freight movement throughout the U.S.  We now have the International Registration Plan (IRP) and the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) that allows carriers to deal with only their home state for payment of registration fees and fuel taxes everywhere they travel.  We also have the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations that preempt state laws so trucking fleets have a uniform set of rules that govern the safety of their operations throughout the country.

Now, imagine if Virginia does away with the Dillon Rule and our 133 counties and cities are allowed to tax and regulate truck operators in any way they want?  Trucks could easily become rolling ATMs for localities seeking various taxes and fees from every truck traveling in or through their borders. Drivers could face enforcement stops in every locality they enter making it impossible to deliver freight on time and comply with hours of service requirements, not to mention the productivity wasted to go through multiple inspections.

Virginia must keep the Dillon Rule and retain state authority over environmental, taxation, labor, health and safety regulations.  Doing so will continue Virginia’s status as a business-friendly state and ensure we have an efficient freight transportation system that businesses and industries in the Commonwealth depend on. 

If you have questions about this article, contact Chad Murchison at cmurchison@setlifflaw.com (804-377-1270) or Steve Setliff at ssetliff@setlifflaw.com (804-377-1261).

For information on how you can support efforts to retain Virginia’s Dillon Rule, contact Dale Bennett of the Virginia Trucking Association at dbennett@vatrucking.org or (804) 355-5371.