The Single-Subject Rule (transcript)

Today’s podcast is on California legislation and the single‑subject rule.

Many state capitol observers are aware of the single‑subject rule, because many are familiar with California Constitution Article II, Section 8(d), which provides that an initiative measure embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect. But does a similar rule exist for bills considered by the California Legislature?

Here’s a little background on the subject. The single‑subject rule is found in several state constitutions in the US that provide some or all legislation may only deal with one main issue. Basically, the general idea is to ensure that legislation is not overly complex or that bills may not possibly confuse or hide provisions in a multi‑faceted measure. Some have argued that the single‑subject rule in legislation precludes combining popular and unpopular unrelated provisions in one large measure.

In California, there is a single‑subject rule for legislation. Found in the state constitution, Article IV, Section 9, it provides, “A statute shall embrace but one subject which shall be expressed in its title. If a statute embraces a subject not expressed in its title, only the part not expressed is void. A statute may not be amended by reference to its title. A section of a statute may not be amended unless the section is re‑enacted as amended.”

It was in 1948 that the California Constitution was amended to add the single‑subject rule for initiatives. The following year, the California Supreme Court ruled that the single subject rule applicable to initiatives was to be construed in the same manner as that contained in Article IV, Section 9 and applicable to legislation.

That’s because this provision applicable to legislation had long been in effect by that time. The single‑subject rule is generally to be construed liberally to uphold proper legislation and all of its parts, which are reasonably germane according to relevant court decisions.

There are a number of cases that have interpreted and applied the single‑subject rule as it applies to legislation. The main case in this area was from 1987, Harbor v. Deukmejian, which was decided by the California Supreme Court.

In that case, the Court explained that the single-subject clause has as its primary and universally recognized purpose, to be the prevention of log rolling by the Legislature.