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What is a Private Bill?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 16, 2024
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A private bill is legislation that specifically affects only a single person, identifiable group of people, or corporate entity, unlike public bills, which apply to all people under the legislature’s jurisdiction. In the United States, most state constitutions specifically prohibit private bills, but the US Constitution doesn’t similarly restrain the Congress. Private bills are also part of the legislative histories of other democracies, and have been the last resort for obtaining justice or equity in special circumstances.

One of the areas where private bills have historically been widely used is divorce law. In Canada, for example, only the legislature could grant a divorce until the passage of the Divorce Act in 1968; likewise, divorce in the United Kingdom was available only by ecclesiastical annulment or an Act of Parliament before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. In the United States, private bills were enacted by Congress to address issues where equity or relief wasn’t available by any other means; that is, enactment of a private bill was a last resort. Nevertheless, private bills were widely used in the United States until 1971, when the various federal agencies charged with carrying out or enforcing the law were granted greater discretion to resolve inequities.

Private bills in the US traditionally dealt with such issues as immigration matters, private tax indebtedness, military decorations and government employment. These issues were dealt with by the Congress because they involved extraordinary circumstances not anticipated by the established law, and no other mechanism existed for granting relief or equity than passage of a private bill. For example, American troops often marry foreign spouses; one such marriage took place by proxy in 2008 between an American Marine and a Japanese woman who was already carrying his child. The Marine was killed in action in Iraq about a month later, but his widow wasn’t permitted to remain in the United States due to a legal technicality — a technicality overcome by Congressional passage of a private bill (HR 3182) in December 2010 specifically granting her resident alien status.

Private bills in the US have become a rarity, though — HR 3182 was the only one passed in 2010, and that was the first since 2006, which also saw only a single private bill enacted. There are two reasons for the scarcity of private bills in the US since 1971. First, Congress that year gave greater discretion to federal agencies to handle cases where strict enforcement of the law resulted in inequity or injustice. Second, private legislation is seen as anathema in a democratic society, where the law is understood to apply equally to all.

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