One cannot begin a discussion on state and local laws without addressing the inherent tension between federal authority and states’ rights. We can better understand the power or authority that the different levels of government have over the lives of the people by understanding the framework created by the Founders.
The Constitutional gives the federal government specific, limited powers. States have authority to draft all laws and legislation outside of the enumerated powers granted to the federal government. State laws govern most of our everyday lives and interactions. The majority of criminal laws and codes are state-specific. Most issues arising from divorce and other family matters are also governed by state law.
Generally speaking, state law will trump local law if there is a conflict between the state law and local ordinance. But this quickly gets complicated since determining whether a legal conflict exists is not always a simple, straight-forward matter. Just because a state law and local ordinance have different requirements does not always mean a conflict exists. However, it is a good rule of thumb to comply with the rules and regulations in the county and municipality you reside in.
The Constitution of the United States explicitly grants to the Federal government exclusive authority to make laws in specific areas for specific purposes. Most of the explicit powers granted to the Federal government can be found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Judicial precedence has established that the Supremacy Clause (Article XI, Clause 2) gives authority to federal laws over any conflicting state laws as long as the federal government was properly exercising its constitutional powers. That said, very few and limited powers are given to the federal government. Among the express powers granted to the federal government include immigration and bankruptcy laws, establishment of the postal service, patent and copyright laws, regulation of interstate commerce, coining money, and maintaining the armed forces.
States have authority to craft legislation in any and all areas where the federal government does not have authoritative jurisdiction (see: 9th and 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution). As a general rule, states have the power to establish and enforce laws protecting the health, welfare, safety and morals of the public in that state. These powers are known as the state police powers derived from the Tenth Amendment. Where applicable and not in conflict with federal law, states generally regulate employment issues, business contracts, wills and estates, and what constitutes criminal conduct. As such, certain conduct which may be illegal in one state is considered perfectly acceptable in another. For instance, in Oregon, it is illegal for you to pump your own gas. It is considered disorderly conduct if you use profane language toward a person under the age of 14 (either in person or over the phone) in Georgia.
While the federal and state governments will often share power or have specific powers delineated to them, local government is granted power by the state. Local government and local laws are usually two-tiered: counties and municipalities (some exceptions exist on a state-by-state basis). You can think of municipalities as a city or town (sometimes referred to by different names). Local laws will often cover areas such as rent control, renter laws, noise and nuisance issues, zoning, and public safety.
Local and state lawyers assist with a wide range of issues depending on their practice area. A reputable lawyer near you should be very knowledgeable on all the state laws and local ordinances that pertain to their area of practice or expertise. For business owners, a state and local laws lawyer should be able to help you determine whether you are in compliance with applicable regulations and codes for the municipality and county you are serving. For the average citizen, these lawyers would be a good resource should you ever find yourself in trouble with the police or have a dispute with your employer.
If you’ve run afoul of the law, or believe you need legal assistance in some way, the chances are you need a lawyer who understands local and state laws. The majority of legal issues you come across on a daily basis can be handled by a lawyer who understands the laws of the state and the relevant local ordinances that may be applicable. Common issues where you would benefit from hiring a lawyer who understands state laws and local laws include landlord-tenant disputes, land use requirements, and local nuisance regulations.