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State, Local and Municipal Laws

Our government uses a shared governance system, meaning there is a combination of the general national government with regional governments. The United States is divided into states and local municipalities, towns, cities, and villages. While we tend to associate “the law” with the Constitution and the federal government, state and local government play a crucial role in our legal system.

The federal and state government have exclusive powers and the ability to make laws that can exist concurrently to create a balance of power. While the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution gives the power to override some state laws, this power has its limits. States are generally free to create and enforce their own laws so long as they are constitutional.

The Role of State Law

State laws typically address domestic affairs and most areas of law not explicitly given to Congress. The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution gives states the power to govern matters in their borders.

Typically, each state has a governor along with state representatives to create legislation. States often have a constitution or a code along with a judicial system and police power to enforce the law.

Law and legislation at the state level can address a broad range of legal issues such as:

  • Criminal and court systems
  • Collecting state income or other taxes
  • Family and divorce law
  • Property ownership and deed registration
  • Social welfare and aid programs
  • Police and emergency services
  • Industry regulation
  • Maintenance of state highways and roads
  • Setting up local governments and delegate authority

Generally if there is a conflict between a state and local law, state laws override any county or local ordinances. Additionally, many states allow local courts to handle certain types of disputes in the court within their own municipality.


Outside of the fifty states, there are also legal territories of the United States, for example, Puerto Rico. While these territories have some powers such as taxation and statutes governing criminal and civil matters, they do not have the same voting power in Congress as the other states do. This is a highly contested issue in our legal system, so the power of territories are likely to evolve over time.

The Role of Local and Municipal Law

A municipality is a city, village, or town that has corporate status and local government. Local and municipal law addresses much of our day-to-day life, covering a wide variety of topics and issues.

Generally, municipalities are governed by a council with a mayor or president. Some cities opt to use a city manager to run the municipality under the advice of the city council. Each municipality has its own way of running, so a local attorney can help you navigate the system in your area should you have a legal issue.

School Districts

With a municipal or local government, there may be further divisions that regulate specific areas. One common example of this is school districts, which have their own rules governing a school system which are limited to that specific area.

Special Districts

There are also special districts, which the Census Bureau recognized as separate entities from the local or municipal government and function autonomously. These districts are created to serve a function assigned by law and their legal authority gives them the ability to provide services for an area within a state. Some districts may serve multiple states if the states enter into an interstate contract with two or more states within the region.

The legislation created and enforced by special districts include:

  • Transportation systems or parking facilities
  • Public parks and conservations
  • Port authorities
  • Fire protection or regional ambulatory services
  • Airports
  • Irrigation and water supply
  • Sewage and waste treatment facilities
  • Electric, fiber optic, or natural gas utilities

The Power of Counties

Counties often have a municipal charter, provide local ordinances, and dictate the powers of the government along with how the law is enforced. The cities, towns, or villages within a county may have their own local laws and government as well but oftentimes rural or remote areas rely on the county.

On the other hand, more populated areas may depend on local city or town government and the county may play a lesser role. In some instances, a city may be independent and function separately from the typical county structure.

Common Legal Issues

Zoning Issues

Local zoning ordinances can apply to both businesses as well as residential areas. These ordinances are created for public safety and health concerns. Municipalities have the power to make laws on which geographic areas may be used for specific purposes such as indicating where a new neighborhood can be built or dictate an area is for industrial use only.

These ordinances can get extremely specific and include regulations for dimensions, placement of utilities, parking, types of buildings, and more. If you are facing a zoning issue, it is important to work with an attorney that has experience with the ordinances in your municipality specifically.

Business Law

Whether you have a small or large business, your municipality may have unique business rules and ordinances that can affect your company. Most jurisdictions, on the state and local level, have specific rules that apply to starting a business and may require you to obtain a license or file other necessary documents. A business attorney in your area can be a helpful tool to ensure you are in compliance with the law or help litigate any legal issues that may arise.

Tax Assessors and Property Taxes

Some municipalities are responsible for collecting property taxes and other local taxes as well. While some taxes are collected at the state level, these taxes are collected to help fund the local government. Depending on your location, the local government entity responsible for this role may be referred to as a tax assessor, tax collector, or sometimes collector of revenue.

Should you have an issue with your taxes or are unsure of how much tax you should pay, a local tax attorney can help you determine how to proceed. Some tax attorneys also advise on criminal charges as well in instances of tax fraud.

Criminal Charges and Law Enforcement

Often when you are charged with a crime, the proceedings are handled at a local level. The investigation along with the arrest are typically handled by local law enforcement. Search and arrest warrants are usually issued by the local judge in your municipality for state level criminal offenses.

If you find yourself facing criminal charges in your state, finding an attorney local to your city or town may be the best route for your defense. Local attorneys are often familiar with the court and prosecuting attorneys within your area along with any unique ordinances your municipality may have.

Civil Court Cases

Most civil court cases are brought in the local court of a jurisdiction. Typically, civil claims address legal issues such as:

Some cases must be filed in a specific type of court. For example, trust and estate law is handled in your nearest probate court while divorce and child custody issues may be handled in a family court. Many smaller locations have courts of general jurisdiction, meaning they hear a variety of cases.

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