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Constitutions and Laws

General Overview

The most fundamental thing to know about Philadelphia government is what the basis of the government is. To really understand this, we need to start from the top and work our way down, beginning at the federal level.

The US Constitution creates the federal government and each of its branches, among other things. The 10th Amendment leaves all powers not enumerated in the Constitution to the states. Because of this, the US has a federalized system, where individual states have a large amount of say over how they run things. It is up to the states to set the rules of the game for local governments. Therefore, the US Constitution leaves Pennsylvania’s local governance to the the State of Pennsylvania, which includes Philadelphia.

When we turn to the State Constitution, we find a similar story to the federal level. It largely leaves power to local governments of many forms. One option that the State gives is to form what is called a “Home Rule Charter.” This basically equates to establishing another layer of independent government, including its own constitution and set of laws. Philadelphia is a Home Rule Charter government under Pennsylvania’s Constitution and laws.

Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter was approved in 1951. We can think of the Charter as analogous to Philadelphia’s constitution, because it establishes all of the branches and roles of government, as well as certain prohibitions and other miscellaneous requirements. It is the Home Rule Charter that creates City Council, the mayor, the district attorney, and so on, in addition to their election processes, pay, and any other details.

The Home Rule Charter then creates the Philadelphia Code, which is the body of all legislation passed by the City Council and mayor. This is analogous to the federal government’s and state’s codes of law, or statutes. The Philadelphia Code covers all topics imaginable, including things like zoning laws, the building code, or income taxes.

One of the most important things to understand is that each layer of government supersedes lower layers. This means that if a lower government’s constitution or laws clash with a higher government’s version, then the higher government’s version is the final word. Therefore, Philadelphia cannot pass a law allowing something prohibited by the State of Pennsylvania or the federal government, and Pennsylvania cannot pass a law allowing something prohibited by the federal government. Gun laws are an excellent example in practice. Philadelphia can never, as long as it is in the US Constitution, pass a law prohibiting gun ownership, even though the local law and constitution have no such prohibition.

This is the framework that Philadelphia fits within. Any progressive policy changes or campaigns must take this into account.

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