The effort to make a new Alabama Constitution
Following is the sixth in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.
By Mike Van Rensselaer
The effort to reform Alabama's 1901 state constitution is not new.
In 1915, Gov. Emmet O'Neal observed: "Many of the provisions of our present antiquated fundamental law constitute insuperable barriers to most of the important reforms necessary to meet modern conditions." Gov. Kilby, in 1923, proposed the creation of a commission to facilitate a constitutional convention. Govs. "Big Jim" Folsom, Albert Brewer (who remains unwavering in his support of constitutional reform), Fob James, and Don Seigelman all made attempts to reform the Alabama Constitution. Why the failure?
The Alabama Constitution is difficult to revise because it was intended to be difficult to revise. The 1901 constitution was written to consolidate power in the hands of the elite and away from ordinary citizens. It would make little sense for the framers of our constitution to strip the average citizen of his rights and then allow an easy method of securing those rights by making a new constitution. So, they limited the number of ways that the constitution could be rewritten. The Alabama Constitution provides only two methods of modification — change through amendment and change through a convention — both of which involve the Legislature.
The amendment method is a well-known and understood process, evidenced by the fact that the constitution has been amended more than 750 times and is the longest constitution in the world. Because amendments must be proposed by the Legislature, using this method provides no security from the overriding dominance of the Legislature in any reform effort. The Legislature decides when to tackle a particular constitutional issue, creates the content, and creates the wording of the amendment. The people get to participate only to accept or reject the amendment.
The real promise for a brighter future in Alabama is through a constitutional convention called for the purpose of writing a new state constitution. The Legislature creates a resolution calling for a constitutional convention, the resolution is put on a statewide ballot for approval, delegates are selected by the people (using a process to be determined by the Legislature) and the delegates come together to create a new constitution. This proposed constitution is then approved or rejected by the people in a statewide vote. The constitutional convention method of reform thus allows the people to participate at several points in the process.
An attempt to rewrite the constitution was made in 1983 by proposing an entirely new constitution in the form of a constitutional amendment. The proposed constitution passed in both houses, but was struck down by the Alabama Supreme Court a week before the scheduled referendum.
The constitutional amendment approach can be painfully slow when it comes to meaningful reform. The last article rewritten in its entirety was the judicial article changed in 1973.
The amendment approach, moreover, serves only to further lengthen and complicate an already ridiculously long document. In 1915, Gov. O'Neal wrote that the only logical step was to "take into consideration the entire subject and remodel the entire constitution so that it might make a harmonious whole."
Other states have a wider array of options available for updating their constitutions. Fourteen state constitutions provide for a periodic vote by the people on whether to hold a constitutional convention. Eighteen states have the option to allow citizens to propose amendments to be directly ratified by the people or submitted to the legislature for approval prior to ratification by the people.
The delegates to the 1901 constitutional convention knew they had succeeded in their quest to usurp political power from the people, but the extent of their success would have surprised even the most ardent of them.
It is up to the people and political leaders of the state of Alabama to work together to return to the people the power taken from them by the 1901 Constitution.