Local & Municipal Law
Federal laws are laid out in the United States Code and apply to the country, federal lands and its territories. The federal government has limits on its powers, however. States and municipalities also have the authority to create their own laws. In most instances, a federal statute will prevail over state law under the Supremacy Clause laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
States are granted the rights to govern matters within their borders by the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Each state generally also has its own constitution in place and its own court system. Indeed, when most people go to their local courthouse (like for a divorce, drunk driving charge or a probate matter), it is often in a state court governed by state law.
Matters that states govern include but are not limited to:
- Criminal laws
- Business contracts
- Estate planning matters
- Property laws
- Family laws
Note that states cannot impede on rights granted by the U.S. Constitution.
So what if a state law grants more freedom than a federal law? So long as it is constitutional, the state laws are generally deemed enforceable.
States also have their own agencies to oversee and enforce its laws. For example, the agency that oversees public assistance matters is generally the health and human services department of each state.
While states have the power to pass laws, counties, cities and towns may also create laws and ordinances. State law generally supersedes local laws. The laws established by local entities can cover a wide range of matters and issues. Cities or counties may have a municipal charter, which lays out local government powers and governs who and how it is enforced. Even the smallest towns and cities can pass local laws, with our without a charter.
Municipalities generally have the authority to determine which geographical areas can be used for what purposes. This generally helps to keep residential, business and industrial areas separated for public health and safety. Municipalities can further regulate building types, building dimensions, utility line placement, parking and how many buildings are permitted on a lot, among numerous other matters.
States and municipalities may also have their own boards of education or school districts. These government entities govern things like curriculum standards, funding and testing. In most instances, the state dictates statewide education standards and school districts oversee individual schools. But every state and municipality may have a unique way of regulating education in its jurisdiction.
Municipalities will usually have taxing authorities within them that govern property taxes. This involves levying taxes, collecting taxes, and appraisals. Property taxes are a major means of collecting funding for local governments. States are also able to regulate some form of taxes.
State, local and municipal laws can be enforced in different ways. Municipalities are generally responsible for regulating their local police departments and law enforcement. Local police are usually responsible for patrolling, enforcing laws within the local jurisdiction, and investigating crimes that happen within the municipality. Any harm or damages caused by local police are handled by the state or municipal government.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.