Constitutional Avoidance: The Single Subject Rule as an Interpretive Principle

Note — Volume 103, Issue 6

103 Va. L. Rev. 1247
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The single subject rule, which prohibits bills from containing more than one “subject,” is in place in forty-three state constitutions and has existed since the nineteenth century. It is frequently litigated and has led to many high-profile laws being invalidated or severed. Although the policy rationales behind the rule are well known and largely agreed upon, applying the rule has proven challenging. Courts have struggled to formulate coherent doctrine for what constitutes a distinct “subject,” as demonstrated by the myriad of vague, malleable tests developed by state courts. As a result, single subject rule jurisprudence suffers from fundamental flaws, including unpredictable, arbitrary decision making and high enforcement costs.

This Note posits that the single subject rule’s enforcement problems stem from courts’ perception of it exclusively as a substantive rule to prevent logrolling and to further other policy goals. This Note proposes an alternative conception of the single subject rule: as an interpretive principle based on the canon of avoidance of constitutional doubt. Approaching single subject rule adjudication in this way would allow courts to enforce the principles of the single subject rule without having to precisely define the contours of a statute’s “subjects,” thus averting many of the difficulties in applying the rule. Employing the rule as an interpretive tool would also allow courts to uphold a law while still enforcing the single subject rule by narrowly construing the law’s various ambiguous provisions. In this way, it would help courts skirt the negative consequences that may result from severing or invalidating popularly enacted statutes and initiatives.

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  Volume 103 / Issue 6  

Exorcising the Clergy Privilege

By Christine P. Bartholomew
103 Va. L. Rev. 1015

Ambition and Fruition in Federal Criminal Law: A Case Study

By Lauren M. Ouziel
103 Va. L. Rev. 1077

Copyright Survives: Rethinking the Copyright-Contract Conflict

By Guy A. Rub
103 Va. L. Rev. 1141

Constitutional Avoidance: The Single Subject Rule as an Interpretive Principle

By Daniel N. Boger
103 Va. L. Rev. 1247