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The Legislative Bill Room, California State Capitol. (Photo: ca.gov)

Why Might a Bill Be Declared Unconstitutional?

The single subject rule serves as a possible basis for a constitutional challenge

By Chris Micheli, October 13, 2020 6:24 am

On occasion, a California statute in challenged in state or federal court as possibly violating the California or United States Constitutions. What might be the basis for these constitutional challenges of state-enacted statutes?

One basis is “vagueness,” which essentially means that the statute was not written with a reasonable degree of certainty so that average citizens understand the meaning of a statute and how it will be applied.  Courts have used descriptions of these unconstitutionally vague statutes with terms such as “nearly unintelligible.”

Another basis is violation of the Equal Protection Clause, which is found in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Essentially this constitutional principle prohibits states from treating different classes of individuals in different ways. Some state constitutions also provide express equal protection guarantees. In general, a statute should not draw any distinction between different classes of people.

“Improper delegation of legislative authority” is a basis for a statute to violate the constitution. In essence, the Legislature is precluded from granting broad powers to an executive branch administrative agency.

Violating the separation of powers, a doctrine which is set forth in Article III of the California Constitution, basically specifies that each of the three branches of state government has specified powers and duties and that the legislative, executive and judicial powers cannot be exercised by the other branches. The principle is based on the doctrine that each branch of government should be protected from another branch usurping the other branches’ powers.

The single subject rule serves as a possible basis for a constitutional challenge. California prohibits a bill from encompassing more than one subject. While this term has been broadly defined by the courts, there have been instances where the doctrine has been violated. The purpose of this requirement is to prevent the combination in one bill of totally unrelated matters that would not receive support if offered independently.

Legislative drafters should be careful in drafting provisions of bills that could raise potential constitutional problems. In the past, other constitutional challenges have been based upon eminent domain, impairment of contracts, the supremacy clause, due process, and the First Amendment. The following is a sampling of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in which California statutes were struck down by the federal high court and its basis for doing so:

National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018) on First Amendment, Free Speech Clause, grounds

Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 564 U.S. 786 (2011) on First Amendment, Free Speech Clause, grounds

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007) on Sixth Amendment, Right to Trial by Jury, grounds

American Insurance Association v. Garamendi, 539 U.S. 396 (2003) on Article II, Vesting Clause, grounds

Stogner v. California, 539 U.S. 607 (2003) on Article I, Section 10, Clause 1, Ex Post Facto Clause, grounds

California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000) on First Amendment, Free Speech Clause, grounds

Hunt-Wesson, Inc. v. Franchise Tax Board of California, 528 U.S. 458 (2000) on Article I, Commerce Clause, and Fourteenth Amendment, Due Process Clause, grounds

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