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U.S. Constitution limits states' rights and powers

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

By W.S. Dixon

Several articles in the Constitution of the United States (especially Article IV) as well as several of the amendments to the Constitution (especially the 14th Amendment) apply to the state governments. In fact the following provision of the 14th Amendment reaches back and makes the 1st Amendment apply to the states: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction of the equal protection of the laws." This then makes the five freedoms guaranteed in the 1st Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition — apply in the states.

If the Supreme Court of the United States had not made this interpretation of the above clauses in the 14th Amendment, the states would have been free to restrict religious freedom and even establish a particular religion as the official state religion, to prohibit any desired variety of speech, to limit or prohibit the printing or disseminating of any information the state decided was not allowed, to prohibit or restrict meetings of any kind as the legislature desired, and to prohibit or restrict access to state public officials.

Other restrictions on the states are specifically stated in the U.S. Constitution in Article I Section 10. In addition, because of the powers assigned to the Congress, the states cannot regulate commerce with foreign countries nor with other states, nor can they naturalize citizens, fix standards of weights and measures, declare war, nor raise or support an army or navy.

Although we refer to the states within the United States by that designation, they do not meet the criterion of sovereign states because they do not have the power to provide protection from outside interference as indicated by the restrictions listed above.

State constitutions are limited, in part as a result of these restrictions. States do, however, have the ability to regulate all other levels of government situated within their territory and Alabama has done this with a vengeance.

All state constitutions contain the following provisions:

  • Preamble (This has no legal authority and cannot be enforced, but it is a general statement of purpose.)
  • Declaration of rights (also called Bill of Rights).
  • Distribution of powers (among legislative, executive, judicial branches).
  • Suffrage and elections (who can vote and how).
  • Representation (Offices and methods of filling them).
  • Taxation (what taxes, how determined, who pays, how much).
  • Education (schools supported, how supported, or, in Alabama, support not required).
  • Corporations (public — counties, cities, etc; and private — establish and control).
  • Mode of amending the constitution.
  • Miscellaneous items (whatever).

    Still other items may be addressed in state constitutions including such matters as the militia, banking, various exemptions from certain provisions, and the boundaries of the state.

    The Alabama constitution is unique in several ways. The most notable difference from other state constitutions is in the number of amendments that have been made to the Alabama constitution, with Alabama having, by far, the largest. Another major difference is that, in most state constitutions, education is treated as a right — in fact, in the constitutions of some states, the right to an education is in the Bill of Rights. Still another difference is the excessive restriction on the freedom granted by the Alabama constitution to local governments, i.e., counties, cities and towns.

    The uniqueness of the Alabama constitution has not been an asset to the state of Alabama, but rather a detriment. If this state has any real desire to progress both economically and socially, the Alabama constitution must be reformed.

    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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