City Charters as Local Constitutions
57 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2019
Date Written: September 30, 2019
City charters are the forgotten constitutions of our federal system. In an era of political gridlock and national polarization, cities and other local governments are increasingly addressing policy concerns once thought of as state, federal, or even international responsibilities. The legal institutions that govern local democracy correspondingly deserve newfound scrutiny.
Charters serve many of the same underlying functions that constitutions perform at other levels of government, delineating institutions and articulating areas of “higher” law for local governments, but charters are rarely taken seriously as constitutional documents. This Article argues that foregrounding the constitutional dimensions of city charters provides new theoretical insights into local governance and the role that local governments play in our political order. Charters, like the federal Constitution, can be a locus for constitutional meaning and collective identity, rendering fundamental choices about governmental structure, political process, and individual rights more salient—and doctrinally significant—at the local level.
Understanding city charters as constitutional texts, in turn, carries normative implications. Properly approached, charters can reinforce the conception of local governments as democratic polities rather than administrative arms of the state or quasi-private service providers, at a time when the democratic underpinnings of localism are under strain. Improving the constitutional nature of charters can also serve a legitimating function for cities, furthering rule-of-law values such as transparency and stability in local governance.
This recognition of the conceptual and normative constitutional potential of city charters, finally, suggests pragmatic pathways for reforming the law and practice surrounding these foundational instruments. The Article accordingly proposes innovations in how state and local governments approach charters, emphasizing the importance of inclusive process in ratifying and amending charters at what are, in essence, critical local constitutional moments.
Keywords: constitutional law, charters, local government
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