Student-Scholar Explores Home Rule in Virginia
Despite a constitutional overhaul ratified by Virginians 50 years ago, localities do not have the greater independence from state authority that localities in many other states enjoy. C. Alex Retzloff ’21, a University of Virginia School of Law student, wanted to know why.
With Professor Richard Schragger, Retzloff co-authored “The Failure of Home Rule Reform in Virginia: Race, Localism, and the Constitution of 1971,” which will be published in the book “Essays on the Constitution of Virginia.” (He also co-authored a white paper with Schragger assessing the use of statutes to prevent local governments from removing Confederate monuments or symbols.)
Retzloff is lead articles editor of the Journal of Law & Politics, president of the UVA Virginia Bar Association Law School Council, co-chair of the SBA Academics and Faculty Relations Committee and a Virginia Law Ambassador who co-chairs the Admissions Office student life panels. Originally from Lexington, Virginia, he graduated magna cum laude with a history degree from Washington and Lee University.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” he talked about what he learned conducting his research and offered advice for students interested in authoring scholarship.
Why law school?
As an undergraduate history major, my favorite classes and projects focused on legal history. I loved dissecting laws, analyzing them in their historical context and assessing their impact on people, places and things. It wasn’t long before this interest in legal history morphed into an interest in the law itself and a desire to go to law school. But I knew that I didn’t want to go straight through, so after college, I worked for three years as a recruiter with Sigma Nu Fraternity. The work was satisfying, but it didn’t change my mind about law school; if anything, it only strengthened my resolve to study law. Looking back now, I’m glad I took time off to work in between college and law school, but I’m even more glad that when the time came for me to begin law school, I did so at UVA.
Tell us more about your paper on home rule and how it came about.
During my 1L summer, I worked as a research assistant for Professor Richard Schragger on several projects concerning the legal relationship between state and local governments.
In many states, cities and other local governments enjoy some semblance of home rule, meaning that unless state law specifically says otherwise, they are free to enact local ordinances and govern as they see fit. In a minority of states, however, Dillon’s Rule — a rule of judicial construction that holds that local governments only enjoy those powers explicitly granted to them by the state — reigns supreme.
Despite the growing popularity of home rule, Virginia continues to adhere to a fairly strict form of Dillon’s Rule. Professor Schragger and I wanted to know why. To answer this question, we traced the history of localism in Virginia from Jefferson’s unrealized vision for a ward system, on through the 19th and early 20th century constitutional conventions, to the momentous constitutional revision of 1968-69 when Virginia rewrote its Jim Crow-era constitution.
Along the way, we found that Virginia has long been resistant to empowering local governments. We further determined that during the constitutional revision of 1968-69, when Virginia came closest to adopting home rule, a motley crew of jealous politicians, shortsighted local government organizers and ambivalent local officials all colluded to snuff out the proposed home rule reform. As a result, the Virginia constitution of 1971 — our current constitution — does not extend home rule authority to Virginia’s cities and other local governments.
Overall, it was a fascinating research project and a story that needed to be told. Throughout the experience, I thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with Professor Schragger, immersing myself in the subject and familiarizing myself with the intricacies of local government law.
What have you learned from the project overall?
I learned so much from that experience, but if I had to narrow it down to just a few key takeaways, I suppose they would be as follows: First, never underestimate the degree to which history, and especially the history of race relations in this country, influences the law’s evolution; second, good research takes work — lots of work — and only by consulting a multitude of resources, reading as much as you can, and conferring with other researchers can you ever hope of finding the answer to your research question; and third, the research resources here at UVA are second to none, and nobody is as familiar with them as the brilliant, dedicated staff of the Law Library, who are all eager to help student researchers.
What’s your involvement with the Virginia Bar Association Law School Council chapter?
My understanding is that UVA had a VBA chapter a number of years ago, but over time it slowly disappeared. By the time I came to Grounds in 2018, the chapter was gone.
Though the chapter was gone, the interest remained and that fall, several law students — including Johnny Mac Yates, Joanna Borman, CJ Collins, Maggie Woodward, Chase Harris and me — began coordinating with VBA alumni to revive the chapter. We noticed that while there are lots of student groups at UVA that promote the benefits of practicing in one place or another, before the VBA, none of them promoted the benefits of practicing in Virginia. In reviving the chapter, we hoped to encourage students to consider a career in Virginia. To that end, the VBA provides students at UVA with the opportunity to meet, engage with and learn from Virginia practitioners by hosting networking events and receptions for students interested in exploring both private practice and public service careers in Virginia; career panels with Virginia practitioners and current students heading to Virginia offices; and socials with current students and Charlottesville/Albemarle Bar Association members.
I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in VBA activities and working with my fellow chapter members during my time at UVA. Since we began to bring the chapter back in 2018, membership in the VBA has grown dramatically, and just this fall UVA recognized the VBA as an official student organization. I am proud of all that we have accomplished in the last two years, and I am excited to see where the VBA goes from here.
What’s something your classmates don’t know about you?
No matter the weather or season, when not studying at the Law School, you can generally find me fly-fishing on one of the rivers, streams or lakes nearby.
What’s next for you?
After graduation, I intend to stay here in the commonwealth and begin a career in private practice in Norfolk.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.