Constitution of Alabama
At 340,136 words, the document is 12 times longer than the average state constitution, 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution, and is the longest still-operative constitution anywhere in the world. The English version of the Constitution of India, the longest national constitution, is about 117,369 words long, a third of the length of Alabama's.
The constitution gives the Alabama Legislature the power to administer most counties directly, with only a few counties having even limited home rule. This supported provisions that essentially disenfranchised most blacks and poor whites, and further limited local autonomy. As a result, about 90 percent of the document's length, as of 2015, comes from its 892 amendments. About 75 percent of the amendments cover only a single county or city, and some deal with salaries of specific officials (e.g. Amendment 480 and the Greene County probate judge). This gives Alabama a large number of constitutional officers. It also makes it very difficult for residents of counties to solve their own problems. The constitution is the most amended in the world.
The Preamble runs:
- We the people of the State of Alabama, in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish the following Constitution and form of government for the State of Alabama.
Alabama has had six constitutions to date, all established via State Conventions: 1819 (converting Alabama Territory into a State), 1861 (Secession), 1865 (Reconstruction), 1868 (Reconstruction), 1875 (ending Reconstruction), and the current document.
The Alabama Constitution, in common with all state constitutions, defines the standard tripartite government. Executive power is vested in the Governor of Alabama, legislative power in the Alabama State Legislature (bicameral, composed of the Alabama House of Representatives and Alabama Senate), and judicial power in the Judiciary of Alabama. Direct, partisan, secret, free elections are provided for filling all branches.
The length and chaos of the current constitution is both the product and the result of a determined centralization of power in the state government dating from the late 19th century under white Democrats. In addition, because of challenges from Populists in 1892 and 1894 elections, the Democratic Party intended to reduce the suffrage in order to establish its own dominance; it appealed to people in North Alabama, who had supported Populists, on the grounds of white supremacy. The Democrats raised "the Negro issue" and promised that "no white man would lose the franchise." In Alabama, the new constitution also "would remove [from voter registration rolls] the less educated, less organized, more impoverished whites as well - and that would ensure one-party Democratic rules through most of the 20th century in the South." Glenn Feldman documented that, by 1941, more whites than blacks had been disenfranchised under this constitution.
The 1901 constitution was also intended to curb executive power and to "make it really hard to raise taxes." In practice, it has resulted in the state legislature having extensive authority over counties, cities and towns. The counties have to go to the legislature--and ipso facto uninvolved parts of the state--to get the most basic policy and financial laws passed, which often fail to get the support of the full legislature. The county legislative delegation has decided most local matters during the decades.
The legislature's power was especially strong during the first half of the 20th century, and it was heavily biased in favor of rural interests. Originally, the state's 67 counties doubled as legislative districts. Each county elected one senator and at least one representative. The county's senator was in an especially powerful position, given that the county legislative delegation decided most local matters. The lower house was apportioned based on each county's population, but it took more than 60 years before the state house was reapportioned after the national census, although the constitution had called for that to take place each decade. The vast differences in population between urban and rural counties through those decades resulted in rural areas being grossly overrepresented, giving them outsized influence over state affairs. As a result of several federal court decisions in the late 1960s that mandated the principle of "one man, one vote," the legislature is required to reapportion itself every decade.
Even with these changes, the legislature still has great powers over local government, and devotes considerable time to local issues. Only seven counties—Jefferson, Lee, Mobile, Madison, Montgomery, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa—have even limited home rule. With the buildup of the defense industry and regional needs during World War II in Birmingham and its area, Jefferson County was afforded a type of home rule in 1944.
All the other counties must lobby the local legislation committees of the state house and senate to pass local ordinances, making passing even the simplest local laws a tedious process. Most county councils or commissions elect their members by at-large voting, which dilutes the political power of significant minorities and generally limits their ability to elect candidates of their choice.
The constitution addresses many issues that are dealt with by statute in most other states, most notably taxation. Unlike most states, a large portion of Alabama's tax code is written into the constitution, necessitating its amendment over minor tax issues. This prevents most local governments from passing any ordinances on taxation. Although the home rule counties can pass ordinances on tax issues, even that authority is limited. For instance, Jefferson County cannot pass ordinances related to property taxes. According to The New York Times, Alabama's tax code is one of the most regressive in the nation.
Adding to the problem is the requirement that any constitutional amendment must be submitted for a statewide vote if it is not unanimously approved by the legislature. This has resulted in amendments relating to local counties and municipalities being overwhelmingly approved in the affected areas, but rejected statewide.
In the 21st century, the document has been heavily criticized for discriminatory elements, many of which have been made moot by amendments to the federal constitution, passage of federal laws, or United States Supreme Court decisions. As a result, they are not enforced, either because they are known to be unconstitutional or would almost certainly be deemed unconstitutional in court.
At the turn of the century, the President of the Constitutional Convention, John B. Knox, stated in his inaugural address that the intention of the convention was "to establish white supremacy in this State", "within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution" (Day 2 of 54). The convention was following a model established by Mississippi, whose 1890 constitution had survived some federal court challenges.
Section 181 required voters to pass literacy tests in order to register, while Section 180 was a grandfather clause, creating an exemption for anyone who had served in the military, or descended from a veteran. As most slaves had been prevented from serving in the military, freedmen and their descendants could not take advantage of this clause. Section 194 required the payment of 1.50 USD poll tax (Worth approximately 37.74 USD by CPI). According to historian Glenn Feldman, by 1940 the cumulative poll tax had disenfranchised more poor white voters than blacks, although both groups were essentially excluded from the political system. These provisions were invalidated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided for federal oversight and enforcement of constitutional rights to suffrage.
The constitution contains its original requirement for public education to be racially segregated in the state. Section 256 states that "separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race." This provision was struck down by the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, and has not been enforced since the 1960s. In 1956, following the Supreme Court decision, the legislature passed a constitutional amendment stating that the state did not guarantee a public education for the state's children. It supported the formation of private schools to evade desegregation. In 1991, a state district judge ruled that the amendment ran counter to the federal Constitution. The state supreme court threw out the underlying case in 2002, but did so in a manner that left the status of the 1956 amendment unclear.
Critics say that the continued existence of segregationist language is an embarrassment to the state in the 21st century. In 2004 and 2012, ballot measures were put before the electorate to remove the segregationist language from the constitution. The 2004 proposal was narrowly defeated by fewer than 2,000 votes, due to objections by conservatives who saw it as a "plot to raise taxes."
A Constitutional Revision Commission was organized and issued a proposal in 2012 for a vote on an amendment related to education issues. It was intended to delete the original text that mandated segregated schools. However, due to the manner in which the amendment was worded, it would have definitively reinstated the 1956 amendment which ended the guarantee of a public education. As a result, it was opposed by both the Alabama Education Association, and by many black leaders. Both claimed the 1956 amendment could endanger future "legal challenges to the state’s school financing structure, substantially worsening inequality while cosmetically addressing it" by deleting racist language about segregation. Observers believed the bipartisan commission had some chance of success because it was "specifically barred from changing the tax code." But, Amendment 4 was defeated.
Section 177 denied women the right to vote by confining voting rights to "male citizens." This was rendered unenforceable by the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided suffrage to women. However, it remained in the state constitution until Amendment 579 was substituted, which contained no reference to gender.
Section 182 disqualified all "idiots and insane persons," men who married interracially, and those convicted of "crime against nature" (homosexuality) from registering and voting.
Size and local relevance
The state legislature has passed numerous amendments to legislate issues that apply to only one or a few counties, as can be seen from the following examples:
- Bingo (Amendments 386 and 387 in Jefferson, further amended by Amendment 600 in Madison Counties, Amendment 413 in Montgomery County, Amendment 440 in Mobile County, Amendment 506 in Etowah County, Amendment 508 in Calhoun County, Amendment 699 in Morgan County, Amendment 612 in Russell County, Amendment 674 in Lowndes County, and Amendment 692 in Limestone County, all of which are almost or exactly the same)
- Mosquito control taxes in Mobile County (Amendment 351), which was later amended by Amendment 361 to remove a single word (tangible), then further amended by Amendment 393 to expand it to "other general health purposes" so long as these purposes do not take more than 50% of the collected money.
- Boll weevil taxes on cotton growers (Amendment 449)
- Promotion of catfish (Amendment 492), soybeans (Twice, Amendment 315 and Amendment 401), cattle (Twice, Amendment 201 and Amendment 452), poultry (Twice, Amendment 214 and amended by Amendment 428), swine (Twice, Amendment 327 and Amendment 400), an omnibus amendment for peanuts, milk, and cotton (Amendment 388), grain (Amendment 453), sheep and goats (Amendment 715), and shrimp and seafood generally (Amendment 766).
- Dead farm animals (Amendment 482) in Limestone County, to be administered by the County Commission
- Prostitution in Jefferson County (Amendment 688).
- Exhumation in Madison County (Amendment 520 by the County Commission), see also the above entry for Dead farm animals in Limestone county
- Forest fire tax levies in Marshall County (Amendment 439)
- Nuisance (Amendment 497 in Jefferson County)
The Legislature has amended amendments to correct language and legislate special taxation (See other sections for more examples):
- Public debt over Mobile County (Amendments 152 and 363 over Amendment 18)
- Promotion of Madison County and Huntsville (Amendment 254 over Amendment 191)
- Special taxation for public healthcare in Mobile County (Amendment 248 over Amendment 195)
- Taxation for "Furtherance of Education" in Jefferson County (Amendments 248, 260, and 298 over Amendment 175)
- Civic center bonds (Amendment 280 over Amendment 238)
- Fire protection and waste collection in Jefferson County (Amendments 314 and 369 over Amendment 239)
- Use of gas taxes (Amendment 354 over Amendment 93)
- Mosquito control taxes (See above)
- The State Judiciary (Amendments 328, 364, and 426 over the original Article VI, later amendments 580 and 581 were made directly to the article and not previous amendments.
- School taxes in Huntsville (Amendment 407 over Amendment 218)
- Fire department districts in Etowah County (Amendment 445 over Amendment 432)
- The Jackson City Port Authority (Amendment 477 over Amendment 465)
- Constitutional amendments that deal with one county (Amendment 555 over Amendment 425
- The Madison County Judiciary (Amendment 607 over Amendment 334)
- Corporation taxation (Amendment 662 over Amendment 212)
- Fire/Emergency services taxes in Montgomery County (Amendment 711 over Amendment 551)
- Calhoun County school district taxes (Amendment 720 over 291)
- More fire protection taxes, this time in DeKalb County (Amendment 728 over Amendment 637)
- Court costs for a new Russell County jail (Amendment 736 over 507)
- Some reservoir Authority in Fayette County, Alabama (751 over Amendment 538)
- Even more fire protection taxes, now in Pickens County (Amendment 765 over Amendment 649)
- Section 97 prohibits deceased officials from receiving a salary.
The constitution includes many provisions that are either wholly or partly archaic in their wording or functions, or unenforceable by federal laws and court rulings. Efforts to remove or amend these have so far proved unsuccessful. Examples include the following:
- Section 86 mandates that "The legislature shall pass such penal laws as it may deem expedient to suppress the evil practice of dueling" (this is not unique to the Alabama Constitution; other state constitutions have similar provisions).
- Section 90 gives instructions on the proper method of annexing foreign territory.
- Section 191 deals with "the evils arising from the use of intoxicating liquors at all elections."
- Section 244 deals with granting of free railroad tickets to elected officials.
- Section 245 prohibits railroads from misleading customers as to their rates.
In the 21st century, many residents are working to gain democratic reform of the Alabama constitution. This effort is spearheaded by the non-profit organization Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (ACCR), which was formed following a rally in Tuscaloosa in 2000. ACCR tracks its reported successes and failures on its website. ACCR has also lent its help to a documentary supporting constitutional reform, titled It's a Thick Book. The title comes from a comment made by a civil servant at the attorney general's office when requested for a hard copy of the constitution. Demetrius Newton, a civil rights attorney who served in the Alabama House of Representatives, has pushed for a new constitutional convention.
A growing number of advocates agree on the need to reform the Alabama Constitution, yet they disagree on tactics, including how best to modify the document. Some advocate for a constitutional convention to rewrite the document, including many leaders within ACCR. Other leaders, including former Governor Bob Riley and Speaker Mike Hubbard, want the Constitution rewritten through an article-by-article approach, similar to the process adopted by South Carolina. Its current constitution was once considered almost as chaotic as Alabama's. Bills to call for a constitutional convention have been introduced in the Alabama Legislature yet have not been brought to a vote.
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- The Constitution of India, the world's longest national constitution
- The California Constitution, also known for its length (the second-longest in the United States and the third-longest in the world) and its constantly changing nature (due to its amendment provisions)
- The Texas Constitution, also known for its length and lack of flexibility
- "Alabama Simmers Before Vote on Its Constitution’s Racist Language", New York Times, 31 October 2012
- Albert P. Brewer, "Home Rule", Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2007, accessed 3 February 2015
- Krishnamurthi, Vivek (2009). "Colonial Cousins: Explaining India and Canada’s Unwritten Constitutional Principles" (PDF). Yale Journal of International Law 34 (1): 219.
- "Constitutions", State legislature
- Joseph H. Taylor, "Populism and Disfranchisement in Alabama", The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Oct., 1949), pp. 410-427 (subscription required)
- Glenn Feldman, The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004, pp. 135–136
- "Ala. Racist Language Measure Draws Unexpected Foes", NPR, 2 Nov 2012
- Using http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ for 1.50 1901 dollars in 2007
- "Amendment 4 fails, racist language stays", Alabama.com, 7 November 2012
- "Newton's death could slow new constitutional convention", Al.com blog, September 2013
- Text of the Constitution
- TECHNICAL ADVISORS COMMITTEE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, REPORT TO THE CITIZENS' COMMISSION ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM, 2002