Our Constitution out of control

Ryan Hankins

Today’s guest columnist is Ryan Hankins.

“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” This is the title of the second-longest-running Off-Broadway musical (according to Wikipedia, at least).

The phrase also seems to summarize Alabamians’ thoughts about our state constitution.

Our current constitution is 121 years old. Consider that between 1819 and 1901, the state had five constitutions. In contrast, voters and organized interests have successfully rebuffed every attempt at comprehensive constitutional reform of the 1901 document. Alabamians (at least some of us) love our Constitution. We (at least some of us) think it’s perfect. And we (all of us) have changed it 978 times and counting.

Constitutions are the foundations upon which governments are built. They define the contours and limits of government power and codify the rights of citizens. They are generally broad and relatively short. The U.S. Constitution has 7,591 words. The average state constitution has 39,000 words. Brevity and generalities lead to fierce debates about what the documents mean.

In Alabama, we have the opposite problem. Our constitution is long, detailed, and contradictory. Before we debate about what the document means, we must first figure out what it says. And that is no small feat.

At 420,000 words—three times longer than the next longest state constitution—and 978 amendments, the document is long and unwieldy. The document is both disorganized and comprehensive. The Constitution addresses government structure, sets tax rates, defines the retirement age of judges, establishes rules on trash collection, caps the price of a telegram and much, much more.

Such length and complexity make it difficult to know what is permitted and what is prohibited.

And right now the Constitution still contains language allowing involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime, supporting poll taxes, requiring segregated schools, and prohibiting interracial marriage. Such provisions have long been negated but remain prominent in the document that purports to express ‘Alabama values.’

Voters will soon have the chance to redress some of these issues—not through yet another amendment but by ratifying the Alabama Constitution of 2022.

The Alabama Constitution of 2022 is an act of the legislature, approved unanimously by both chambers, reflecting the recommendations of a citizens’ committee.

The recompilation does three things. First, it removes outdated, voided, and illegal language. Also deleted are provisions that subsequent amendments have already changed. Think of this as one giant “accept all changes” action where the changes are not suggestions of an editor, but items approved by voters or ordered by courts.

Second, the recompilation folds the 978 amendments into the body of the constitution in a logical and organized fashion. So, if approved, the new constitution will have zero amendments—until the next election, anyway.

Third, the recompilation organizes local amendments in by subject and county, making it easier for officials, attorneys, and (gasp!) even the public more easily know what is legal in their location.

Together these three changes will reduce the document by 46,726 words, but we will maintain the record of the longest constitution in the world.

Lest proponents of comprehensive reform cheer and opponents fear, be aware: the proposed recompilation makes no changes to state law.

The  Alabama Constitution of 2022 will be shorter and easier to navigate. It will remove the nullified provisions and racist language. For better or worse, the Alabama Constitution of 2022 preserves structural challenges.

Power will remain concentrated in the legislature, with limited home rule for cities and counties.

Regular amending will remain necessary, sometimes requiring the entire state to vote on a local issue.

The rights of citizens and the powers of local governments will continue to vary by jurisdiction.

Approving the recompilation will not affect taxes, education, elections, prisons, healthcare, transportation, or any other issue. Conversely, rejecting the document will not affect any of these or other issues.

What rejecting the recompilation will do, however, is ensure national, and perhaps international, media coverage of the state’s latest refusal to strike racist and segregationist language from the document purported to define Alabama values.

A  rejection will insult the goodwill agreement between Republicans and Democrats, Black and White, in the state legislature who voted unanimously to take this step forward. And a rejection would frustrate two decades of work by Constitutional reformers, including PARCA founder and former Gov. Albert Brewer who’ve patiently labored to make the kinds of changes we are now poised to make.

Ryan Hankins is Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. He has lived in Alabama since 2000.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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3 thoughts on “Our Constitution out of control”

  1. Approving this long overdue UPDATE could attract more industry/businesses
    to invest and locate in ALABAMA! That means more and better jobs for our citizens and young adults…more tax revenue for better roads, highways and schools. A huge “PR” initiative for ALABAMA that costs nothing more than your VOTE!

    1. Yes it will be interesting to see how many people vote against it. Why would anyone vote against it? Especially given that both parties voted for it in the legislature. But some people think anything new is suspect.

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