The past decade has witnessed the emergence and rapid spread of a new and aggressive form of state preemption of local government action across a wide range of subjects, including among others firearms, workplace conditions, sanctuary cities, antidiscrimination laws, and environmental and public health regulation. Particularly striking are punitive measures that do not just preempt local measures but also hit local officials or governments with criminal or civil fines, state aid cutoffs, or liability for damages, as well as broad preemption proposals that would virtually end local initiative over a wide range of subjects. The rise of the new preemption is closely linked to the partisan and ideological polarization between red states and their blue cities.
This Essay examines the spread of the new preemption and explores the legal doctrines available to local governments for challenging it. It argues that the more extreme preemption measures threaten the capacity for local self-government and are at odds with the values of local autonomy, the cornerstone role local governments play in our governmental structure, and the widespread state constitutional commitment to home rule. It also considers whether arguments about localism, like arguments about federalism, are really just about means to specific policy ends. It concludes that particularly in the current era of polarization, our system ought to protect some local space for self- determination for problems that arise at the local level.
* Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation, Columbia Law School.