The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City is considering two cases brought by a citizen activist who’s challenging the validity of legislation signed into law in 2016 that he says was too broadly crafted to include too many subjects and purposes.

Missouri Supreme Court – Image courtesy of Missouri Courts

Ron Calzone of south-central Missouri’s Dixon is the executive director of a group called “Missouri First” and is a familiar fixture at the state Capitol who testifies at committee meetings.

He’s appealing a decision in Cole County Circuit Court which rejected his lawsuit that claims the legislature used unconstitutional procedures to pass an education bill.  He’s also appealing the same court’s decision against his lawsuit challenging an agriculture bill under the same grounds.

The lower bench also dismissed a count in both suits, saying they were not recognized claims in Missouri law.

Calzone claims both bills violate the original purpose and single subject clauses of the state constitution.  He also claims changes made to each bill’s title are unconstitutional.

Senate Bill Number 638 was introduced during the 2016 legislative session under a title to repeal one section of the law and replace it with two new sections “relating to civics education.”

Both the state Senate and the House of Representatives made certain amendments to the bill before passing it. Further amendments were made to the measure during a conference committee appointed to reconcile the differences in the versions from each chamber. As enacted, the bill’s final title was to repeal 20 sections of the law and replace them with 29 new sections “relating to elementary and secondary education.”

Calzone claims the controlling subject and purpose of Senate Bill 638 is teaching “civics education”.  He contends the various amendment added which deal with topics ranging from school board vacancies to charter schools to the pledge of allegiance in schools are changes that should not be permitted.

The state claims a bill’s original purpose is not bound by words in its initial title, in this case, “civics education”, and contends all provisions in the bill that passed fall under the purpose of “promoting and regulating elementary and secondary education.”  The state further claims the measure doesn’t break the single-subject requirement because all its provisions relate to elementary and secondary education in Missouri.

In court briefs written by Assistant Attorney General Jason Lewis, the state noted that the Supreme Court has previously determined that education is an acceptable subject for legislation. He also mentioned cases in which the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of bills similar to Senate Bill 638 against original purpose attacks.

Calzone, who is not an attorney, claims the bill is unconstitutional because legislators changed its title rather than remaining true to its original wording which referred to “civics education”.

The state argues that the Supreme Court has often determined that changing a bill’s title is an ordinary and proper act of the General Assembly done to reflect amendments added to a bill.  The state also says that the high bench has properly determined that a bill’s title is not part of the bill.

During Tuesday’s hearings, Calzone countered that the Supreme Court in previous cases had said the original purpose of a bill is established by the bill’s earliest title and language at the time the bill is introduced, and the controlling subject of a bill is determined by the introduced version of the bill.

Assistant Attorney General Justin Smith handles the state’s arguments over the agriculture bill being challenged by Calzone.  He said the high bench has consistently presumed that the legislature enacted a constitutional bill and has shown a great deal of deference towards the legislative process.  “As long as it’s naturally connected, if it’s the same general subject matter, this court substantially defers to the legislature unless there’s a clear constitutional violation,” said Smith.

In seeking to preserve the bills if the Supreme Court decides in favor of any of Calzone’s claims, the state contends the judges should sever only the portions of the bills that are determined to violate the constitution.   Calzone contends the bills should be struck down entirely if any provisions are found to be unconstitutional because there’s no evidence that the legislature would have passed it without those provisions.  “Not a single shred of evidence has been presented in either of these two cases that these bills would have passed absent any single clause,” said Calzone before the judges.

After hearing the cases involving the education and agriculture bills Tuesday, the Supreme Court is considering the arguments and could issue its decision at any time.