The clash between Charlotte and state legislators over HB2, inadequately described as the “bathroom bill,” raises a fundamental question: If Charlotte wants to provide broader protections for civil rights than N.C. law does, why should legislators across the state have any say in it? Must the needs of our big cities be limited to what’s acceptable in Mayberry, the bucolic hamlet policed by Sheriff Andy?
Though that point may seem arguable, in fact legislative authority over local governments is well established in a rule originated by a 19th-century Iowa Supreme Court justice.
Before serving on Iowa’s high court, John Dillon was a corporate lawyer noted for his expertise in local government and his hostility toward local officials.
Their sometimes risky investments in railroad expansion and other private ventures appalled him. His 1868 ruling clamped down by forbidding municipalities to exercise powers not specifically granted by the state. In 1903, a U.S. Supreme Court decision adopted Dillon’s Rule. Most states, including ours, now operate under some form of it.
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In North Carolina, however, a legal scholar a decade ago concluded that legislators and judges had given cities more authority than in all but a few states. That may be changing as Republican legislators exert greater authority over Democrat-run local governments.
About the mythical Mayberry there is much to admire, but big cities are different. Throughout history, they have been more supportive of innovation and risk, greater generators of jobs and wealth, and more accepting of diversity and conflict than smaller communities.
That difference was evident in the 2012 vote on a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Statewide, 61 percent of voters approved it. In Mecklenburg, the state’s largest county, 54 percent of voters rejected it. In the next largest county, Wake (Raleigh), even more voters opposed it – 57 percent.
Though legislators value the amenities and revenues that big cities provide, some of them abhor the challenges to traditional values that cities create. That’s evident in HB2. Lawmakers enacted it in response to an urban myth they created without regard to experience elsewhere: that sexual predators lurk within Charlotte, eager to don female attire and invade women’s restrooms.
But society’s views on sexual identity continue to evolve. Legislators who command social change to halt often discover that Dillon’s Rule doesn’t grant them that power.
Ed Williams retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of The Observer’s editorial pages.