July 2014 Bar Bulletin
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July 2014 Bar Bulletin

U.S. and State Constitutions - A Study in Contrast

By Christina Schuck


In November, for the first time in 30 years, voters will be asked whether to convene a constitutional convention. Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Senate and House voted to put the matter of a constitutional convention on the ballot.

The last state constitutional convention was held in Rhode Island in 1986 and produced its latest constitution. Rhode Island's constitution requires a referendum on holding a convention every 10 years.1 Voters rejected holding one in 1994 and 2004.2

Although it has not happened yet this century, it is not uncommon for states to overhaul and frequently amend their constitutions. In general, state constitutions have been more impermanent and transient in comparison to the U.S. Constitution.

Many states have gone through multiple constitutions. For example, Georgia ratified its tenth constitution in 1982.3 Only 20 states are still operating under their original constitutions.4 Washington is one of them. Our one and only state constitution was ratified on October 1, 1889.5

Our federal constitution wins distinction as not only one of the shortest constitutions in the world, but also one that has endured the longest. Throughout its 224 years, it has been amended just 27 times. Its relative stability and endurance supports its intent to operate as a general framework for American government.

In contrast, some state constitutions embody Justice Louis Brandeis's description of "novel social and economic experiments."6 Rather than provide just a framework for government, many state constitutions detail policies and prohibitions.

Alabama's (sixth) constitution wins the distinction of providing the most details. At more than 175,000 words, the 1901 constitution has been amended hundreds of times. Most of its amendments concern taxation. Specifically, numerous provisions cap the state income tax rate, mandate deductions, dictate property value assessment and strictly limit property tax rates.7

South Carolina uses its constitution to govern divorce.8 Although it originally prohibited divorce for any reason, it has been amended, not to stop governing divorce, but to prescribe under what circumstances divorce can be granted. As a result, in South Carolina you can be freed from the "bonds of matrimony" on grounds of adultery, desertion, physical cruelty, continual separation for at least a year and "habitual drunkenness."9

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