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Concealed carry law -- extreme case or business as usual?
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum says Republicans used existing legislative rules to the concealed weapons law. "There was obviously nothing that was broken in regards to the procedure. We outmaneuvered 'em, yes!" he says. (MPR file photo)
Tuesday's decision by a Ramsey County judge to throw out Minnesota's concealed handgun law is raising questions about the constitutionality of other legislation. The judge ruled the law violated a constitutional provision requiring that bills deal with only one subject. Supporters of the law say the ruling opens the door to dozens of legal challenges, but others say the gun law was an extreme case.

St. Paul, Minn. — In April 2003, supporters of a bill to make it easier to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon were tired of having their efforts blocked in the Minnesota Senate. They knew they had the votes to pass the bill if they could get it to the Senate floor. Otherwise, the bill would be killed in a Senate committee. So they tried a parliamentary maneuver that had worked a week earlier -- which got an abortion waiting period bill to the full Senate.

House members tacked the concealed carry bill onto an unrelated Senate file -- a Department of Natural Resources technical bill. It went back to the Senate, where it passed by a vote of 37-30, and was signed by Gov. Pawlenty within hours of its passage. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says supporters of the bill used existing legislative rules to get the bill passed.

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Image Sen. Wes Skoglund

"Fully within the realm of the law, fully within the realm of the rules," Sviggum says. "There was obviously nothing that was broken in regards to the procedure. We outmaneuvered 'em, yes!"

Sviggum says the bill wasn't passed in the dead of the night, and everyone knew what they were voting on. He says the Legislature often passes bills that deal with more than one subject. But Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, a vocal critic of the concealed carry law, says this situation was unusual.

"Most bills are not on a single subject, but it's a related subject. It's not an abuse of the process like this," Skoglund says. "The only times I can remember where a conference committee was not created was this past year, when a circus bill became an abortion bill and a littering bill became a gun-carrying bill."

The circus-abortion bill Skoglund refers to used a slightly different tactic. House members who supported a 24-hour abortion waiting period amended the legislation onto a bill regulating circuses around the time of the State Fair. They then deleted the circus language, leaving only one subject -- abortion -- and sent the bill to the Senate, where it passed and was signed by the governor.

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Image Rep. Lynda Boudreau

Opponents of the Woman's Right to Know law say they've been considering a legal challenge since the law was signed. But Tim Stanley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, says groups that support legalized abortion haven't decided whether this week's ruling sets a direct precedent.

"What happened with the conceal and carry law does not have us racing to the courthouse to file papers for litigation at this time," Stanley says.

Stanley, who lobbies at the Capitol, says he thinks both the abortion waiting period and concealed carry law are extreme cases of legislative sleight of hand. He says the two shouldn't be compared to the many so-called omnibus bills that pass the Legislature each year. Those are typically budget bills that cover a variety of related issues in a broad area like crime prevention or education.

State Rep. Lynda Boudreau, R-Faribault, sponsored both the abortion waiting period and concealed carry bills. She says the judge's ruling could set a disturbing precedent.

Garbage or Christmas tree bills appear to be a direct, cynical violation of our Constitution.
- 1986 Minnesota Supreme Court decision

"If this was the final word, the question needs to be asked, what is the point of the Legislature passing any bill? There are very few bills that we pass that don't encompass more than one area," Boudreau says.

The concealed carry law could end up before the Minnesota Supreme Court, which has ruled on cases involving the question of single-subject legislation many times in the past 20 years, according to former Supreme Court Justice Ed Stringer. Stringer reviewed the history of bundling different topics in one bill, in an opinion he wrote in a 2000 case.

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled a Minnesota law that included both a tax bill and prevailing wage language was unconstitutional. Stringer says the court has generally given the Legislature fairly wide latitude to group different areas in the same bill.

"The approach of the court has been one of liberally looking at the constitutional provision -- the single-subject provision -- and liberally applying it, in the context of the practical problems of the enormous amount of legislation that moves through the Legislature in a session," Stringer says.

The Legislature usually passes hundreds of bills each session. In a 1986 Supreme Court decision, former Justice Lawrence Yetka wrote, "Garbage or Christmas tree bills appear to be a direct, cynical violation of our Constitution." Stringer says the challenge is defining just exactly what is legitimate legislation, and what is garbage.

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