In this short-attention-span era, we’ll read the headline and, perhaps, if we’re not too busy, the first two or three paragraphs. Or we’ll catch the 10-second radio bulletin and, occasionally, see the 30-second follow-up on TV.
Our partisan instincts nudged, we will then shout at each other across the great Red State-Blue State divide on Facebook and Twitter without ever learning the substance of the issue. We’re like two families feuding generations after everyone has forgotten what started the feud in the first place.
Case in point:
The Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled – unanimously – against several provisions in state budget bills, including one that banned mask mandates in K-12 schools and one that banned the teaching of critical race theory. Conservatives howled in anguish and progressives shouted with joy. Let slip the dogs of overheated rhetoric!
But anyone who read beyond the headlines realized that the justices were not saying anything one way or the other about the specific merits of the measures. They simply ruled that the measures violated the provision of the Arizona Constitution requiring individual bills to encompass a single subject.
With too many not noticing, the court had slipped a little bit of good government into its ruling. Legislators must actually follow the state constitution.
The constitutions in 41 of 50 states, including Indiana, contain a general single-subject rule, according to a 2014 study published in the Valparaiso University Law Review, but in most of them “the rules have effectively been rendered dormant due in large part to courts’ refusal to enforce the rule.”
Indiana courts are among those ignoring this provision. As the Indiana Court of Appeals has noted, “Indiana’s single subject rule is essentially a void constitutional letter despite a robust body of precedent solemnizing its significance.”
There are two important issues here.
The first is that the single-subject rule promotes good government.
The discussions among those drafting Indiana’s 1851 constitution made clear that the intent was to put restrictions on the actions of legislators, who could do pretty much anything under the 1816 constitution. Of particular concern was banning the practice of log-rolling, legislators doing favors for one another in provision-stuffed bills, which resulted in myriad laws of interest only to a few people, with none of them getting the attention and debate they deserved.
Not much discussed among the drafters but of related significance is that multiple-issue bills make it harder for Hoosiers to know the laws they must live by. Democracy can work only with a transparent government and an informed citizenry. Just consider the recently passed federal $1 trillion-plus infrastructure bill and the still-under-consideration multi-trillion social spending bill. We likely never will know everything those require of us and from us.
The second issue is that constitutions matter, state ones no less than the federal one.
They set the ground rules for limiting the actions of government and clearly defining the rights of the governed. If they are not interpreted to say what they mean and mean what they say, we are lost at sea and can never truly be free. With the U.S. Constitution battered for decades by those who want it to validate what they want and only what they want, our state documents are even more important.
Gov. Holcomb and the General Assembly are engaged in an epic battle over what the governor’s executive powers should be and how much control the legislature should have over its own actions. Each side insists it is not pursing selfish interests but intent only on fidelity to the state constitution.
It is fair to ask if they really mean it.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: The Indiana Policy Review Foundation sued the state Legislature on the single-subject rule in 1995. Two years earlier, Public Law 4-1992 (P.L. 4-1992) became law without the signature of Gov. Evan Bayh. The law routinely amended sections of the Indiana Code to bring it into accord with the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (Supp. IV 1992). The law, however, also included a last-minute provision defining the salary of members of defendant Indiana General Assembly. These changes in the definition of “salary” increased the amount that the State is required to contribute to the General Assembly’s pension fund. Talk about a sneaky way to get a pay raise, but the Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear our complaint.