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Comparison of Alabama and U.S. constitutions

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

By W.S. Dixon

A constitution is, by definition, the basic law of the organization it covers. In the United States, everyone is under the United States Constitution and, at the same time, under the constitution of the state in which they reside or, in some cases, carry on their activities. The U.S. Constitution specifies the powers possessed by the national government, although these are very broad, and leaves all other powers to the states or to the people.

A comparison of the Alabama Constitution and the United Sates Constitution is both interesting and frustrating. It is interesting because the U.S. Constitution meets the definition of a constitution. It is frustrating because the Alabama Constitution does not.

The original Constitution of the United States consisted of seven articles. It has been amended 27 times in the 216 years since it was ratified and now consists of approximately 7550 words.

A new Alabama Constitution (the sixth) was adopted in 1901. It consisted of 17 Articles containing 287 sections, has been amended more than 750 times since it was adopted, and requires more than 12,000 words just to list the headings of its contents.

Both the U.S. and the Alabama constitutions cover many of the same topics: individual rights, the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, the structure and functions of these branches, qualifications for holding the various offices, length of terms, methods of amending or replacing the constitution, specific powers of the government, and restrictions on government actions.

Because of the "unitary" form of state government, the Alabama Constitution provides for the creation and removal of subordinate governments such as counties and towns. The degree of control over these governments contained in the constitution is such that they cannot truly perform their functions without the approval of the Legislature. While the national government is one of limited powers (although broadened by controlling superior purse strings,) the state governments are restricted almost solely by the restrictions erected by the national government and thus can exercise more stringent control over the governmental functioning of the state.

In contrast to the U.S. Constitution, which either provides for broad powers to be exercised by the Congress or executive branch or is silent concerning many functions or activities, the Alabama Constitution reaches out to gather in power over as many functions and activities as could be imagined in 1901 and in subsequent years. The result in many areas is to smother the function or activity or to keep control of the function or activity in the hands of the controllers of the Legislature to their personal advantage.

The U. S. Constitution was devised and constructed at least in part as a result of rivalries or competition among the 13 original states. It was necessary to provide a government with sufficient power to overcome or to hold in check these rivalries but also a government that at least nine of those states would approve. This was accomplished largely by compromise and by the good will of those who were delegates to the convention. Ratification of this constitution was a result of the application of reason backed by the sterling reputation of George Washington and the sales job done by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton through the Federalist Papers. It also profited from the realization by many of the leaders of the states that they could not go it alone, they had to have a more stable government than the Articles of Confederation provided.

None of this applied to the Alabama Constitution of 1901. It was concocted by people whose intent was to deprive the poor, particularly blacks, of the opportunity to control their own destinies. It had little in common with the U.S. Constitution except in the mechanics of government. It still has little in common.

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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