Peter J. Nelson: The price of enforcing the state Constitution
The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ordered former GOP Rep. Jim Knoblach to gamble $11 million if he wants to proceed with his lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of how lawmakers authorized the $90 million Senate office building, which is set to break ground in July. If he wins, he gets his money back; if he loses, he stands to lose every penny.
Technically, Knoblach must post an $11 million surety bond to cover any extra expenses resulting from construction delays caused by an unsuccessful legal action. Such surety bonds are allowed under Minnesota statute in order to protect taxpayers, but judges are supposed to weigh in their decision whether the legal challenge poses a substantial constitutional question.
Of course, Knoblach doesn’t have $11 million lying around. So if the order stands, the case will be dropped and a very important constitutional question will not be addressed.
Knoblach’s legal challenge aims to enforce the Minnesota Constitution’s requirement that “no law shall embrace more than one subject.”
The single-subject rule is an important protection against the mischievous legislative practice, as explained by Justice Bradley Meeker during Minnesota’s 1857 Constitutional Convention, “of grouping together several different subjects in one bill, and passing them through by means of a system known as logrolling.”
Logrolling gives legal force to unrelated bills that individually would never gain majority support in the Legislature, relieving lawmakers of accountability for passing unpopular bills. Its limitation is one of many checks and balances our Constitution built into the structure of our government to curb abuses.
At a time when one party controls all levels of state government, the single-subject rule gains importance as one of the last checks left.
The Senate office building offers a classic example of logrolling. Originally, the building provisions were included in the capital expenditures (or bonding) bill, but that failed to pass. The provisions were then rolled into the omnibus tax bill — a bill guaranteed to pass. Balancing the budget depended on it.
The building wasn’t the only abuse of the single-subject rule in 2013. The omnibus energy bill also stalled due to unpopular provisions some DFL legislators could not vote for separately — including a costly solar mandate. The legislation was then logrolled into the more-popular jobs bill.
If Minnesota courts had appropriately enforced the single-subject rule in the past, the Senate office building and energy policy in 2013 might have been steered by majority impulses vs. minority interests.
Courts always have struggled to enforce the single-subject rule. Striking down a law approved by a majority of legislators and signed by the governor is no trivial matter. Courts quite appropriately show deference to the executive and legislative branches.
Nonetheless, the Minnesota Supreme Court in the 1980s began to grow concerned that it was being “far too lax” and failing to enforce the Constitution, also no trivial matter.
But the current application of the single-subject rule remains exceedingly deferential. According to the Court of Appeals in Unity Church vs. Minnesota (2005), all matters in a bill must be “germane” to a single subject. And to be germane “the various sections of the bill need only be connected by a ‘mere filament’ to one another and to the general subject.”
This so-called “mere filament” test should make any judge blush if they were transported back to 1857 and forced to explain it to Justice Meeker, the aforementioned author of the single-subject rule.
Knoblach’s challenge gives the court the opportunity to tighten the legal standard.
In a 1986 case marking the shift in the court’s position on the single-subject rule, Justice Lawrence Yetka powerfully stated the court’s responsibility: “The courts of this nation and of the state were uniquely given the authority to prohibit infringements by either the legislative or executive branch of the government of constitutional rights vested in the people and denied those branches of the government. If we do not act to protect the public, who will?”
Who indeed? Knoblach stepped up to do his part. Will the courts do theirs?
(Peter J. Nelson is director of public policy at the Center of the American Experiment.)