One-Subject Rule Strategy Can Defeat Dangerous State Laws

By Amanda Martinsek, William Edwards and Daniela Paez | September 26, 2021, 8:02 PM EDT

Amanda Martinsek
William Edwards
Daniela Paez
The National Conference of State Legislatures has identified 48 states with a single party in charge of both legislative chambers — 30 under control of Republicans and 18 under control of Democrats.[1]

Further, Republicans have state control, in which one party controls both houses of the legislature and governor's office, in 23 states, while Democrats have state control in 15.[2]

Where there is legislative or state control by one party, there is a far greater likelihood that controversial, pork barrel and/or potentially dangerous legislation can be enacted.

Many times, groups or individuals who have sufficient interest in potential legislation engage in lobbying efforts that result in the insertion of a rider[3] into legislation of other voluminous, must-pass bills.

A deceptively straightforward avenue for challenging hot-button legislation may be a claim under the single-subject or one-subject rule.

As its name suggests, the single-subject rule requires, writes Richard Briffault in the Albany Law Review, "that each act of the legislature be limited to a single subject."[4] 

Almost every U.S. state includes some iteration of the single-subject rule.[5]

However, winning a one-subject rule challenge is no easy feat.

We recently learned this firsthand through our representation of the Plain Local School District Board of Education in its challenge of a statute, inserted as a rider into Ohio's biennial budget, which would have effectively eliminated procedural safeguards in place to protect Ohio students against racial isolation, among other things.

Parties that challenge newly enacted state laws that they believe infringe upon their civil or constitutional rights face a steep uphill battle.

From the outset, such litigation requires careful assessment of multiple strategic and legal considerations, including choosing the most favorable forum, framing viable legal claims for relief, understanding the defenses available to the state or its agents, and weighing the benefits of a potential waiver of those defenses against the risk of facing an early dispositive motion based on the state's affirmative defenses.

Below is a discussion of how these strategies can be practically applied in an effort to vindicate constitutional and civil rights.

Standard and General Considerations

There are no major textual variations among the states' respective single-subject rules, which generally require two elements: (1) that every bill be limited to only one subject, and (2) that the subject be clearly expressed in the title.[6]

Despite this, the framework and applicability of the rule is not uniform.

For example, some states limit the applicability of the single-subject rule to specific bills, such as appropriations bills, or those adopting special or local laws.[7]

By contrast, some jurisdictions explicitly exclude appropriations bills from the requirements of the single-subject rule.[8]

The judicial standard that courts in most states apply when evaluating single-subject rule challenges has been described by professors Justin Evans and Mark Bannister as a test couched in "broad and vague language, calculated to defer to the legislature."[9]

Similar to the rubric applied in multiple other states, in Georgia, as first articulated by the state Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Carter v. Burson:

The test of whether an Act or a constitutional amendment violates the multiple subject matter rule is whether all of the parts of the Act or of the constitutional amendment are germane to the accomplishment of a single objective.[10]

Other state courts apply less amorphous — although still highly deferential — tests.[11]

For example, in Plain Local School District Board of Education v. Dewine, decided last year, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio relied on the Supreme Court of Ohio's 1999 decision in Simmons-Harris v. Goff, which established the following three-factor test to guide courts analyzing one-subject rule challenges:

  • Whether the challenged provision is "significant and substantive," and yet is tucked into a voluminous bill;

  • Whether the provision at issue is "inherently controversial and of significant constitutional importance such that it warrant[s] discussion and debate"; and

  • Whether there is "blatant disunity between" the challenged provision "and the rest of the ... bill so that the addition of the [challenged provision] appear[s] tactical."[12]

Still, as Briffault observed, despite an "uptick in findings of violations in recent decades, the meaning of the rule remains murky, with the case law consisting of a mix of unpredictable 'I know it when I see it' decisions."[13]

In that regard, courts analyzing single-subject rule statutory challenges often underscore the rule's purposes, which include preventing legislators from combining unrelated provisions into a single bill for tactical purposes, such as logrolling.[14]

The general rule, the Plain Local court wrote, is that "[d]isunity of subject matter is the only requirement" and "no extrinsic evidence of logrolling is required to find a statute violates the one-subject rule."[15] But it is safe to assume that gathering and highlighting such evidence before the court can only strengthen a single-subject rule challenge.

Indeed, plaintiffs who strategically and deliberately proffer evidence of logrolling, where present, show the court that the challenged provision is the product of, what the Ohio Supreme Court has called, "the very evil the one-subject rule was designed to prevent."[16] 

Despite the uptick noted above, a 2015 nationwide study of single-subject rule jurisprudence concluded that "most states have ... given little weight to their respective single subject rules."[17]

This is not surprising, since, as a general matter, in the words of the Plain Local court, quoting Ohio Supreme Court precedent,

statutes have a strong presumption of constitutionality, and the "party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proving that it is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt."[18]

Notwithstanding this reality, a viable single-subject rule claim can be a particularly attractive approach to a constitutional challenge. This is because, despite the generally vague and difficult-to-meet standard, proving a violation of the rule is often less burdensome and more expeditious than establishing a constitutional violation under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, Section 1983.

It also requires less evidence than that necessary to establish a constitutional violation under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1977 decision in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.[19]

Recent Successful Challenges

Below are some examples of recent, successful challenges under the single-subject rule.

Plain Local

The Plain Local School District Board of Education successfully challenged a substantive provision inserted at the last minute into the state biennial appropriations bill.

Plain Local sued the village of Hills and Dales, the members of the Ohio State Board of Education and the superintendent of the Ohio Department of Education, seeking a declaratory judgment invalidating the statute, as well as an injunction against its enforcement and implementation. The school district also asserted claims for violations of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions, among other federal statutes.  

The challenged statute, known as the Fast-Track Transfer Statute, radically changed the long-standing procedural safeguards in place to protect Ohio students from school district territory transfers having a segregative impact and significantly impairing the operations of the affected school districts.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio held that

the Fast-Track Transfer Statute, a significant, substantive, and controversial amendment to House Bill 166, [was] a mere rider that was tactically inserted into the must-pass budget bill in order to secure its passage.

The court further held that the provision had "no discernible practical, rational, or legitimate relationship to the state budget."

Accordingly, the court held that the Fast-Track Transfer Statute must be severed to retain the rest of the appropriations bill.[20]

In addition, as detailed below, the court highlighted the ample evidence of logrolling.

VanWinkle v. Sage

On June 21, in VanWinkle v. Sage, the Supreme Court of Colorado struck down as unconstitutional Initiative 16, a ballot proposal to amend Colorado's criminal animal cruelty statutes.

Among other things, Initiative 16 intended to

(1) end certain exemptions for livestock, (2) create a safe harbor for the slaughter of livestock with various conditions, and (3) expand the definition of 'sexual act with an animal' (a type of animal cruelty).

The court held that Initiative 16 violated the Colorado Constitution's single-subject provision because,

[a]lthough the central theme of the initiative is incorporating livestock into the animal cruelty statutes, redefining "sexual act with an animal" stray[ed] into a second subject by addressing the bodily integrity of all animals, not just livestock.

The court further explained that because

these subjects are not necessarily and properly connected, there is the potential for the very kind of voter surprise against which the single-subject requirement seeks to guard — here, voters might not understand that what is nominally a livestock initiative also affects the care of all animals, or vice versa.[21]

Cooperative Home Care v. City of St. Louis

In 2017, the Supreme Court of Missouri held in Cooperative Home Care Inc. v. City of St. Louis that a provision prohibiting municipalities from establishing a minimum wage exceeding the state minimum wage, which was inserted into a bill known as the Community Improvement District Act and was intended to address the establishment, proper governance and operation of community improvement districts, violated the Missouri single-subject rule.

The court noted that the legislative history presented a clear example of legislative logrolling, as the challenged provision had been the subject of a separate bill that had been proposed to and rejected by the state Legislature.

It was only when the minimum wage bill failed to pass that its proponents inserted it into the Community Improvement District Act, which, as the court noted, plainly demonstrated logrolling.[22]

Burns v. Cline

In 2016, in Burns v. Cline, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma invalidated S.B. 642, which included "one section modifying an existing statute relating to abortions, and enact[ed] three unrelated new sections in [the] same title."

Specifically, the court found that:

  • Section 1 amended a statute "dealing with the consent required for an abortion to be performed on a minor and delineated civil and criminal penalties for any violation";

  • Sections 2 and 3 "both place[d] new duties and directives on the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigations and the Oklahoma State Department of Health respectively"; and

  • Section 4 was a "broad sweeping provision that provide[d] for substantial civil as well as criminal penalties for any violation of any" existing regulation relating to designated abortion statutes contained in the Oklahoma statutes.

In striking down the bill, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the four separate sections of S.B. 642 lacked a common purpose and were not "germane, relative and cognate."

Although each section related in some way to abortion, the broad sweep of each section did not cure the single-subject defects in the bill.

Furthermore, although the defendants argued that there was no evidence of logrolling, the court found the provisions to be so unrelated that those voting on the bill were faced with a constitutionally prohibited all-or-nothing choice to ensure the passage of favorable legislation.[23]

Plain Local: Pointers and Strategic Considerations From the Trenches

The Fast-Track Transfer Statute

Ohio Revised Code, Section 3311.242, which became known as the Fast-Track Transfer Statute, is a now-stricken, unconstitutional provision that, as the district court wrote, "consists of a mere two pages tucked within a 2,600-page budget bill."[24]

The Plain Local court held that the statute "create[d] an entirely new manner for effectuating certain school district transfers" of territory to another school district.[25] 

Specifically, the statute allowed citizens of certain communities to circumvent the statutory and administrative framework that had been in place for decades, and specifically empowered the Ohio State Board of Education to, among other things, "ensure that territorial transfers do not increase racial isolation or negatively impact the district losing students."[26]

The safeguards circumvented by the statute included a hearing on the merits of the transfer before an impartial hearing officer, whose findings and conclusions are considered at a public meeting of the State Board of Education, specific consideration of the fiscal and racial impact of the proposed transfer, and the res judicata-like effect of a state board decision denying a proposed transfer.

Significantly, the framework was enacted following multiple federal court decisions, many of which made their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, ordering desegregation throughout various Ohio school systems.

A salient characteristic of the Fast-Track Transfer Statute was its "evasion of state oversight," in the words of the court, as it allowed certain communities to unilaterally request a transfer that needed to be approved only by a simple majority of the same voters who requested the transfer.[27] 

As such, any transfer under the challenged statute became "self-executing" because "only those persons ... seeking to transfer g[o]t to vote on the transfer."[28]

Jurisdictional, Forum and Early Strategic Considerations

Before the complaint was filed, counsel for the school district determined that it was important for Plain Local's statutory challenge to be heard in federal court.

One of the primary reasons for that imperative was the Republican Party's state control in Ohio, and the fact that state court judges in Ohio are both elected and identified by party affiliation.

While the school district felt strongly about its chosen forum, it also understood that it needed to position the case in the best posture to overcome jurisdictional challenges that would not be an issue if the case were brought in state court.

First, counsel for the school district determined that the state of Ohio was unlikely to waive its Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity defense, which generally bars suits against the states in federal courts.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1908 Ex parte Young doctrine, however, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar claims for prospective injunctive relief against state officials arising from violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

Therefore, the school district did not sue the state of Ohio or the State Board of Education, but instead sued the individual members of the State Board of Education and the superintendent of the Ohio Department of Education.

Second, counsel for the school district had to evaluate the pros and cons of asserting its state law claims in federal court.

The Ex parte Young doctrine does not preclude state officials from asserting an Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity defense to claims arising under state law.

And, while the school district was confident in the strength of its federal claims, it was also mindful of their relative complexity when compared to the state constitutional claims, including its single-subject rule claim.[29]

In the court's own words, "the answer to [the] state-law, one-subject rule claim [was] straightforward and would avoid the necessity of reaching the thornier federal statutory and constitutional claims," which implicated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[30]

Like many affirmative defenses, sovereign immunity can be voluntarily waived by the state.

Therefore, the school district decided to assert its state law claims in federal court on the basis of pendent jurisdiction, opening the door for the state officials to either waive or assert sovereign immunity.

The state officials ultimately waived sovereign immunity, and the statute was stricken as violating Ohio's single-subject rule.

Public Records Requests

There was a key consideration in assessing the strength of the one-subject rule claim and assuming the risk that the state officials would assert sovereign immunity — the evidence of, among other things, logrolling that was gathered as part of a public records request to the community that lobbied for the passage of the Fast-Track Transfer Statute.

Significantly, this evidence of logrolling not only strengthened Plain Local's straightforward one-subject rule claim, but it also supported its equal protection claim under the Supreme Court's 1977 Arlington Heights ruling.

Arlington Heights provides the framework for a plaintiff to show evidence supporting an inference of discrimination.[31]

The nonexhaustive factors analyzed to establish that inference include "the specific sequence of events leading up to the challenged decision[,] ... departures from the normal procedure," and departures from the normal substantive factors.[32]

Therefore, the following evidence of logrolling in this case, highlighted in the court's opinion, overlapped with the evidence proffered to support the Arlington Heights analysis:

  • "[T]he legislation was drafted for the specific purpose of permitting a special interest group to evade existing legislation, and the process behind the statute's passage shows it was tucked into an appropriations bill as a tactical maneuver to achieve that goal."[33]

  • "The Fast-Track Transfer Statute was not a part of House Bill 166 when the bill was first introduced on March 25, 2019. Rather, it was tucked into the May 2, 2019 House Finance Committee amendments, which added almost 1,000 pages to the original appropriations bill."[34]

  • A member of the village council of the community that lobbied for the statute stated in an email that he "'worked pretty tirelessly' to ensure the legislation was passed." That same council member testified that he "believed as a tactical matter that the best time to include the transfer statute was in the must-pass budget bill."[35]

The documents uncovered as a result of the public records request gave the school district the opportunity to craft a detailed complaint and guided its discovery strategy throughout the litigation.

Given that most statutory challenges involve entities subject to public records or sunshine statutes, attorneys and their clients should consider making those requests as early as possible.

Other Considerations

Parties asserting state law claims against state officials in federal court should consider the importance of case management schedules and related orders.

In Plain Local, counsel for the school ensured an early deadline for asserting jurisdictional defenses and filing motions to dismiss, as it was important to know as soon as possible whether or not its state law claims could proceed in federal court.

Had the Ohio Department of Education officials raised sovereign immunity, the school district could have then asserted those claims in a separate action in state court.


A party challenging a state statute that violates its client's constitutional or civil rights may want to analyze the entire bill containing the offending provision.

If the overarching subject of the bill is arguably unrelated to the provision at issue, the single-subject rule may provide a viable, relatively straightforward avenue to challenge the enforcement and implementation of the statute.

Further, when a statute seems to violate the single-subject rule on its face, attorneys may want to make a public records request to any public entity that they suspect was involved in lobbying for its enactment, as it could lead to early discovery of logrolling, as well as other procedural and substantive departures supporting the statutory challenge.

Lastly, even parties who feel strongly about remaining in federal court should not assume that they are foreclosed from asserting a single-subject rule claim against state officials. As in Plain Local, the state actors may either intentionally or inadvertently waive their sovereign immunity defense for tactical or other reasons.

Amanda Martinsek, William D. Edwards and Daniela Paez are partners at Ulmer & Berne LLP.

Disclosure: The authors represented the Plain Local School District in the case discussed here.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] National Conference of State Legislatures, "State Partisan Composition," available at

[2] Id.

[3] "Riders are provisions that are included in a bill that is so certain of adoption that the rider will secure adoption not on its own merits, but on [the merits of] the measure to which it is attached." Plain Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. DeWine , 486 F. Supp. 3d 1173, 1197 n.24 (S.D. Ohio 2020), appeal dismissed, No. 20-4088, 2020 WL 9216634 (6th Cir. Oct. 29, 2020) (quoting Simmons-Harris v. Goff , 86 Ohio St. 3d 1,16, 711 N.E.2d 203).

[4] Richard Briffault, The Single-Subject Rule: A State Constitutional Dilemma, 82 Alb. L. Rev. 1629, 1629 (2019).

[5] Id.

[6] See, e.g., Ohio Const. art II, § 15(D) ("No bill shall contain more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title."); Ok. Const. art. 5, § 57 ("Every act of the Legislature shall embrace but one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title . . . ."); S.C. Const. art. III, § 17 ("Every Act or resolution having the force of law shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title."); Cal. Const. art. IV, § 9 ("[a] statute shall embrace but one subject, which shall be expressed in its title."); Wash. Const. art. II, § 19 ("No bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title."); Mo. Const. art. III, § 23 ("No bill shall contain more than one subject which shall be clearly expressed in its title . . . .").

[7] Briffault, supra note 2, at 1629.

[8] Id.

[9] Justin W. Evans & Mark C. Bannister, Reanimating the States' Single Subject Jurisprudence: A New Constitutional Test, 39 S. Ill. U. L.J. 163, 211 (2015); see also id. at 211 n.311 (collecting cases).

[10] Id. at 211 (quoting Wall v. Bd. of Elections , 250 S.E.2d 408, 413 (Ga. 1978)); see also Brosnahan v. Brown , 32 Cal. 3d 236, 245, 186 Cal.Rptr. 30, 651 P.2d 274 (1982) ("an initiative measure does not violate the single-subject requirement if, despite its varied collateral effects, all of its parts are 'reasonably germane' to each other, and to the general purpose or object of the initiative."); Mo. Roundtable for Life, Inc. v. State, 396 S.W.3d 348, 351 (Mo. 2013) ("the test for whether a bill violates the single subject rule is 'whether the bill's provisions fairly relate to, have a natural connection with, or are a means to accomplish the subject of the bill as expressed in its title.'") (quoting Mo. Health Care Ass'n v. Att'y Gen. of the State of Mo ., 953 S.W.2d 617, 622 (Mo. 1997)).

[11] See, e.g., Whitsett v. State , 913 So. 2d 1208, 1211 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005) (the "first step . . . is to determine the single subject . . . ." and "[t]he second step . . . [is] to determine whether [the challenged provision is] 'properly connected' to th[e] single subject." The challenged provision is "properly connected" to the single subject "(1) if the connection is natural or logical, or (2) if there is a reasonable explanation for how the provision is (a) necessary to the subject or (b) tends to make effective or promote the objects and purposes of legislation included in the subject."); People v. Burdunice , 211 Ill. 2d 264, 267, 811 N.E.2d 678, 681 (2004) (Illinois courts apply "a two-tiered analysis" in which they: (1) "determine whether the act, on its face, involves a legitimate single subject" and (2) "discern whether the various provisions within an act all relate to the proper subject at issue.").

[12] Plain Local, 486 F. Supp. 3d at 1201 (citing Simmons-Harris, 711 N.E.2d 203 at 16).

[13] Briffault, supra note 2 at 1631 (quoting Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964)(Stewart, J., concurring)).

[14] Id. at 1199. See also Com. v. Neiman , 624 Pa. 53, 68, 84 A.3d 603, 611 (2013) (quoting City of Philadelphia v. Com ., 575 Pa. 542, 838 A.2d 566 (2003)) (purposes of the single-subject rule include preventing "the practice of 'logrolling' which involves 'embracing in one bill several distinct matters, none of which could singly obtain the assent of the legislature, and procuring its passage by combining the minorities who favored the individual matters to form a majority that would adopt them all.'"); Otto v. Wright Co ., 910 N.W.2d 446, 456 (Minn. 2018); In re Title & Ballot Title & Submission Clause for 2005-2006 No. 55 , 138 P.3d 273, 276-77 (Colo. 2006); Stroh Brewery Co. v. State , 954 S.W.2d 323, 325-26 (Mo. 1997)).

[15] Plain Local, 486 F. Supp. 3d at 1205.

[16] Id. at 1199.

[17] Evans & Bannister, supra note 7 at 163.

[18] Plain Local, 486 F. Supp. 3d at 1196 (citing State ex rel. Dix v. Celeste , 11 Ohio St. 3d 141, 142, 464 N.E.2d 153).

[19] Village of Arlington Heights v. Metro. Hous. Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 265 (1977).

[20] Plain Local, 486 F. Supp. 3d at 1199, 1208.

[21] Matter of Title, Ballot Title and Submission Clause for 2021-2022 #16, 2021 CO 55, ¶¶ 1–2.

[22] Cooperative Home Care, Inc. v. City of St. Louis , 514 S.W.2d 571, 577, 580 (Mo. 2017).

[23] Burns v. Cline , 2016 OK 99, ¶¶ 1, 8–11, 18, 382 P.3d 1048, 1049, 1051, 1053.

[24] Plain Local, 486 F. Supp. 3d at 1200.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 1201.

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 1201 n.8.

[29] The federal constitutional claims asserted against the state officials implicated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

[30] Id. at 1186.

[31] Vill. of Arlington Heights, 429 U.S. at 266–68

[32] Id.

[33] Plain Local, 486 F. Supp. 3d at 1206.

[34] Id. 

[35] Id. at 1206, 1208.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!