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What is a constitution and what is its purpose?

Following is the first in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

By W.S. Dixon
Stated simply, a constitution is the basic law on which all other laws are based.

Every permanent organization of individuals, whether public or private, must have basic rules or laws for its establishment and for the conduct of its activities. Our entire national, state, and local governmental system rests on constitutions.

In a democracy, the construction of a constitution is a function of the people because the people exercise the sovereignty and, as a result, decide what rules and principles they want government to follow. A portion of this constituent power is delegated by the people to the legislature by allowing it to participate in the process of amending the constitution.

A constitution, to be successful, must be both stable and flexible. We in the United States are accustomed to a single-document, relatively rigid constitution. It is rigid in that it can be formally changed only by amendment or replacement entirely. Flexibility is achieved through decisions made by the legislature, by the chief executive, and by the courts, all of which do introduce flexibility. Both our national and the state constitutions are of this single-document, rigid variety.

But, this is not the only type of constitution. The British constitution consists of custom and tradition, laws dealing with the fundamentals of government, and some court decisions. It is usually said to be an unwritten constitution but this is not quite correct as, although it is not a single-document constitution, some considerable parts of it are written. It is, however, much more flexible than constitutions in the United States.

The constitution supports statutory laws as well as regulations and actions supported by those laws. But it does even more.

A constitution provides for the structure of the organization. In government, it establishes the legislative, the executive, and the judicial branches. The structure of each of these branches is spelled out, e.g., for the legislature two houses are provided and named and the functions to be performed by each are specified as well as restrictions on their functions. The executive offices are established and the functions of these offices specified and restrictions may be stated. Courts are established and their functions and restrictions given.

The methods of selection of the individuals to fill the positions in the structure are specified. The requirements those individuals must meet to fill those offices and the length of terms are stated. The functions to be performed by each, the restrictions on them, and the relationship to other functions within the structure are given.

A bill of rights is also included in state constitutions just as in the national constitution. These rights are usually stated as restrictions on the state, although some of the rights are stated directly. The constitution may contain statements of various duties of the citizens of the state or activities in which they may not indulge.

Because all states have subordinate governments, (counties, cities, towns, etc.), it is necessary to include in the constitution the means of creating and eliminating these organizations. Their functions, duties and responsibilities are spelled out or permission given to the legislature to establish these by later laws.

The methods of amending or replacing the constitution are also provided by the constitution itself.

Every state in the United States has, in one sense, two constitutions, because portions of the national constitution apply to the states as well as to the federal government.

Our system of constitutions, national and state, provide the United States as a whole with a very stable system of government. Although all state constitutions provide stability, some are more stable than others and require few amendments. Other state constitutions, because of provisions within the constitution itself, provide less stability or, in some cases, so much stability that progress is hampered or even harmed.

W.S. Dixon is a member of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. He is retired from Lockheed and lives in Florence.

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