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The Attack on American Cities

August 2019

Citation: ELR 10761

Author: Richard C. Schragger

Cities often test the existing limits of their regulatory authority in areas like environmental protection, labor and employment, and immigration. The last few years witnessed an explosion of preemptive state legislation attacking, challenging, and overriding municipal ordinances across a wide range of policy areas. But this hostility to city government is not new. In 1915, one professor observed that “the relations of states to metropolitan cities in this country is ‘a history of repeated injuries’ .  .  . [and] ‘repeated usurpations.’” This Article’s descriptive goal is to understand how an institutional system overtly dedicated to the principles of devolution can be so hostile to the exercise of city power. It first describes the twenty-first century attack on American cities by canvassing preemptive state legislation across a number of policy areas. It then turns to “Our Federalism’s” anti-urbanism, and describes how state-based federalism hinders municipal power generally, and how the U.S. Constitution favors rural over urban voters specifically. It then places this “anti-urban constitution” in the context of the historic skepticism of the exercise of city power. Finally, it considers the legal and political options available to cities in responding to these conflicts.

Richard C. Schragger is the Perre Bowen Professor and Joseph C. Carter Jr. Research Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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