By: Mark Glennon*
I’ll ask a leading authority on Illinois’ single subject rule about it and the “grand bargain” budget solution under discussion in Springfield, but first a little background.
The single-subject clause of the Illinois Constitution is in Article I, § 8(d), paragraph 2. It provides:
Bills, except bills for appropriations and for codification, revision or rearrangement of laws, shall be confined to one subject. Appropriation bills shall be limited to the subject of appropriations.
But the grand bargain is a gigantic cornucopia of different subjects. It addresses pension reform, workers’ compensation, security for municipal bonds, new and increased taxes, a property tax freeze, a spending cap, the school funding formula, local government consolidation, procurement reform, casino expansion and more.
To get around the single subject rule, the grand bargain is broken into twelve separate bills, but each bill says it becomes law only if all twelve become law.
Isn’t that an obvious subterfuge to avoid the single subject rule? Surely a court would see through the ploy, right?
Not so fast. In 2011, in Wirtz v. Quinn, the Illinois Supreme Court said one bill can be made conditional upon passage of another. However, the court also rested its decision heavily on its conclusion that the bills at issue were, in that particular case, limited to a single subject.
My view is that the Illinois Supreme Court is a political forum – a rogue court that cares little about constitutions, law and precedent.
But that’s just me, so I asked somebody with real expertise and better judicial temperament than me – Sam Vinson.
Vinson is a partner in the law firm of Hanlon & Vinson in Chicago. He’s formerly an Illinois state representative and has argued a number of cases based on the single subject rule, including Wirtz v. Quinn before the Illinois Supreme Court. He’s also a walking history book on Illinois law.
I asked him what he thought and here’s his response:
I would not describe the Illinois Supreme Court as a rogue court, though I believe their decision in Wirtz v.Quinn was wrong and could lead to a dangerous constitutional problem. Legislation in any General Assembly is negotiated. That decision arms irresponsible legislators with a tool to argue with responsible leaders about how to circumvent the Single Subject Rule during. Constitutional rules are most respected when they are absolute, red lines that permit no trespass: the right to a jury trial, freedom of religion, only the legislature may enact taxes. To have meaning a Single Subject Rule requires the courts to interpret the “subject” of a bill narrowly and strictly. Otherwise irresponsible legislators will regularly tell their leaders that the Single Subject Rule does not matter, “Put my pork in the deal.” It would greatly help Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton to be able to say, “The Court will throw the whole deal out just as they did our effort to solve the pension crisis when it violated the Constitution.” And both of them are skilled leaders who can walk the floor several times at the end of a legislative session and explain to members why they should vote for each bill that addresses the State’s crisis. I’ve watched them do it.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints. Opinions expressed are his own.