California Legislation and the Single Subject Rule

By Chris Micheli

Many Capitol observers are aware of the single subject rule. Some know that the California Constitution, in Article II, Section 8(d), 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?

The single subject rule is found in several state constitutions in this country that provides some or all legislation may only deal with one main issue. The general idea is to ensure that measures are not overly complex or that they may possibly confuse or “hide” provisions in a multi-faceted measure. Some have argued the single subject rule also precludes combining popular and unpopular unrelated provisions in one omnibus measure.

In California, there is a single subject rule for legislation that is considered by the Legislature. Article IV, Section 9, of the state Constitution 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.”

Section 9’s language is similar to that which is applicable to initiatives placed on the ballot before the statewide electorate. In both instances, the rule essentially provides that neither an initiative nor a bill may embrace more than one subject.

While the section of the state Constitution dealing with initiatives speaks only to the single subject rule, the section of the state Constitution dealing with legislation encompasses several provisions. Its first clause provides the single subject rule. In addition, it requires the bill’s title to accurately reflect the subject of the bill and makes void any subject contained in the bill that is not expressed in the bill’s title.

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 Article IV, Section 9. The 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, all parts of which are reasonably germane.”

There are a number of cases that have interpreted and applied the single subject rule as it applies to legislation. The main case is Harbor v. Deukmejian (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1078, which was decided by the California Supreme Court. The Court explained that the single subject clause has as its primary and universally recognized purpose the prevention of log-rolling by the Legislature, i.e., combining several proposals in a single bill so that legislators, by combining their votes, obtain a majority for a measure which would not have been approved if divided into separate bills.

The Court further explained that, as of 1982, the constitutions of 41 states included a single subject requirement. The purpose of the requirement that the single subject of a bill shall be expressed in its title is to prevent misleading or inaccurate titles so that legislators and the public are afforded reasonable notice of the contents of a statute. The Court also stated that the cases interpreting Article IV, Section 9 “hold that a measure complies with the rule if its provisions are either functionally related to one another or are reasonably germane to one another or the objects of the enactment.”

California legislation is bound by a single subject rule and there is guidance from the state Supreme Court regarding how that rule is to be applied when bills are considered by the Legislature.

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.


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