Hugh Spitzer


This Article focuses on the tension between the late-nineteenth century “Dillon’s Rule” limiting city powers, and the “home rule” approach that gained traction in the early and mid-twentieth century. Washington’s constitution allows cities to exercise all the police powers possessed by the state government, so long as local regulations do not conflict with general laws. The constitution also vests charter cities with control over their form of government. But all city powers are subject to “general laws” adopted by the legislature. Further, judicial rulings on city powers to provide public services have fluctuated, ranging from decisions citing the “Dillon’s Rule” doctrine that local governments have only those powers clearly granted to them by the legislature, to the “home rule” view that charter and optional code cities have broad unspecified powers. Despite actions by lawmakers to expand city home rule powers, recent court decisions have puzzled practitioners by alternately voicing these two approaches in a seemingly random fashion. This Article describes the origin of Dillon’s Rule, places it in a national context, and explains its longevity in Washington despite the legislature’s clear intent to eliminate the rule’s application to most cities. The Article suggests that the zombie-like reappearance of Dillon’s Rule is explained by (1) the vitality of the rule as a doctrine applicable to special purpose districts; (2) appellate judges’ insistence on picking and choosing from doctrines (including ostensibly dead doctrines) to support a case’s outcome; and (3) a combination of doctrinal forgetfulness and carelessness. The Article repeats a recommendation made five decades ago by former University of Washington law professor Philip Trautman that the Supreme Court of Washington should adopt a more consistent approach, one that follows the legislature’s clear intent to make Dillon’s Rule inapplicable to most cities.