The Failure of Home Rule Reform in Virginia: Race, Localism, and the Constitution of 1971
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Virginia remains one of a minority of states that does not constitutionally enshrine some form of home rule for its cities or other local governments. This Essay, written for a volume commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of Virginia’s 1971 constitution, considers why. The committee charged with drafting that new constitution recommended a home rule provision, but it was quickly and quietly rejected by the General Assembly even as most of the committee’s other recommendations were adopted and later approved by the voters. The failure of home rule reflected a historical pattern. Starting with Jefferson’s unsuccessful advocacy of a ward system during the constitutional revision of 1829-1830, constitutional reformers in Virginia have consistently faced resistance to empowering local governments. Virginia still adheres to a strict form of Dillon’s Rule, a rule of construction that limits local governments to the powers explicitly granted to them by the legislature. Despite repeated efforts to repeal that rule, it remains a barrier to local initiative.
This Essay places the 1971 failure to adopt home rule in the context of this longer history. Antebellum Virginia was characterized by “plantation localism,” a system meant to ensure elite control over local government through the county court system. In the twentieth century, “Jim Crow localism” continued the same pattern. The Byrd Organization exercised power from the center by controlling county-level constitutional officers. Legislative supremacy was enforced by courts applying Dillon’s Rule. Even as the state’s demographics changed, the suspicion of local power remained, in part because of fears that local control might mean granting power to cities with significant African-American populations. That there has never been a large, dominant city in Virginia also limited the pressure to devolve power.
The lack of home rule continues to be acutely felt, however, especially in those parts of the state that are rapidly urbanizing. City-state conflicts over a range of issues have led many to call again for home rule. As Virginia’s political geography continues to change, we may see yet another push for constitutional reform. Whether such an effort can overcome the deep bias against local power in the Commonwealth remains to be seen.