Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Which takes precedence, a city charter or general state law?

This article about the condemnation of the marina at Hopewell includes the following discussion about local vs. state law:

"According to Zevgolis, this is clearly spelled out in the Hopewell City Charter. Zevgolis described a city charter as a "mini constitution" which takes precedence over state law. Zevgolis said that the charter states that only the Port and Dock Commission can declare buildings over water as condemned and that the state law gives the building inspector the power to declare buildings condemned.
Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, said as far as she knew Virginia State Law always takes precedence over city charters or any other sort of local law."

Ms. Cantrell ought not be saying things like that. First of all, Va. Code § 15.2-100 says that the general provisions shall generally not be construed to alter charter rights, except when the legislature uses the magic words: "Except when otherwise expressly provided by the words, 'Notwithstanding any contrary provision of law, general or special,' or words of similar import, the provisions of this title shall not repeal, amend, impair or affect any power, right or privilege conferred on counties, cities and towns by charter." I think the AG opinions generally say the same thing. See, e.g., Hon. Edwin Wilmot, AG Opinion 99-080, 2000 WL 425333, *2 (March 8, 2000) ("A charter provision that establishes the powers of a local government is special legislation authorized by Article VII, § 2 of the Constitution of Virginia (1971), and will prevail over general law, absent an indication of legislative intent to the contrary, in the event of a conflict between the two."). "General laws are superseded by later charter provisions, which are themselves statutes, to the extent that there is a conflict." Com. v. Rose, 160 Va. 177, 180, 168 S.E. 356, 357 (1933).

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