McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli outside the California State Capitol

On occasion, California statutes can be challenged in either state or federal court with the argument that the statute violates the California or United States Constitutions. So, on what bases can a statute be declared unconstitutional?

One basis is vagueness. Essentially, the standard here is whether or not the statute is written with a reasonable enough degree of certainty that the average citizen could understand the meaning of the statute and how its provisions would be applied. Often, courts will use phrases like “nearly unintelligible” when describing statutes that are unconstitutionally vague.

A statute can also violate the Equal Protection Clause, found in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. A number of state constitutions also have express equal protection guarantees. Here, a statute would be found unconstitutional if it treats different classes of individuals in different ways.

Another basis is what’s called improper delegation of legislative authority. The Legislature is prohibited from granting too broad of powers to an executive branch administrative agency. In an instance where a statute delegated too much power from the legislative branch to the executive branch, it could be deemed improper and declared unconstitutional.

A statute can also violate the single-subject rule. Essentially, a statute cannot encompass more than one subject, although the term has been defined broadly by the courts. The single-subject rule not only applies to statutes passed by the Legislature, but also to ballot initiatives in California’s direct democracy process.

Some other bases for a constitutional challenge include eminent domain, the separation of powers doctrine, the impairment of contracts, due process, the supremacy clause, and the First Amendment. These are all areas of constitutional law that bill drafters have to be mindful of while drafting provisions so that they don’t raise these potential constitutional concerns.

You can find the transcript of today’s audio here.

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