Two Democratic lawmakers and the NAACP filed a lawsuit last Thursday seeking to overturn a recently passed “stand your ground” law, which removes Ohioans’ legal duty to try to retreat before responding to a perceived attack with deadly force.
The legislation passed in the dying hours of the previous General Assembly often known as the “lame duck” session — the period after biennial elections but before the victors take office. Lawmakers abruptly tucked the stand your ground language into an unrelated bill addressing civil liability issues among nonprofit corporations.
The plaintiffs, including Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, and Rep. Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland, allege the bill’s passage violated two rules in the state Constitution:
- Three considerations rule: “Every bill shall be considered by each house on three different days”
- Single object rule: “No bill shall contain more than one subject.”
“The Stand Your Ground legislation was controversial and the tactical insertion of it into S.B. 175 circumvented the public criticism of pending and past Stand Your Ground bills,” lawyers with anti-gun violence advocates Everytown Law, representing the plaintiffs, wrote in a court filing.
Between July 2019 and December 2020, Senate Bill 175 existed only as a bill that shielded nonprofits from liability related to gun incidents on their premises from a licensed carrier.
The lawsuit notes the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, specifying in written May 2020 testimony that the bill isn’t about firearms.
“I want to be very clear that Senate Bill 175 does not [emphasis in original testimony] expand concealed carry rights or locations,” he said. “This is not a ‘gun bill.’”
However, on Dec. 17, as House leadership teed up the bill for a final passage vote, lawmakers amended the bill around 10:30 p.m. to incorporate language from two different stand your ground proposals introduced in the same General Assembly. Those proposals yielded several contentious committee hearings but never made it to the floor for a vote.
It went on to pass 52-31 around midnight in the House and 18-11 in the Senate the next day, with a handful of Republicans in either chamber voting with Democrats in opposition. Several sponsors on the original bill, including Republican Rep. Steve Hambley and Sen. John Eklund, removed their names as cosponsors after the change.
The suit argues the bill didn’t receive three days of review, given the substantial amendment (stand your ground) adopted just before a passage vote. Additionally, it claims the amendment and the original bill span different subjects, and thus does violates the single object rule.
Spokesmen for House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who control the floors of their chambers, did not respond to inquiries.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said at a media briefing Thursday their suit, if successful, would be the first stand your ground law overturned in the nation. Starting with Florida in 2005, at least 25 states have passed stand your ground laws according to a May 2020 count from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Minor amendments to bills don’t necessarily require three more readings. However, when a bill is “vitally altered” by “departing entirely” from a consistent theme, it must be read anew three times, according to precedential rulings the Ohio Supreme Court cited by the plaintiffs.
“A court’s key consideration should be whether the bill maintained a common purpose both before and after its amendment,” wrote Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor in a majority opinion last year.
In a concurring opinion, however, Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote that the three-reading rule was “directory, not mandatory” for lawmakers. She and two other justices, Patrick DeWine and Judith French, said it’s time the court overrule previous case law allowing courts to invalidate statutes that violate the three-readings rule.
Other precedent cited by plaintiffs states the one-subject rule allows for legislation spanning a “plurality of topics” but not a “disunity of subjects;” in other words, if multiple topics in the same bill relate to one another, the legislation is constitutional.
Stand your ground passed in Ohio after 10 years of efforts from the gun lobby. Supporters argue it removes an unfair duty to retreat from law abiding citizens in the face of an attack. Critics, including Democrats and public health researchers, say it yields a more trigger-happy public and leads to even more disparate treatment in the criminal justice system on racial lines.
This article originally appeared in The Ohio Capital Journal.