Constitution of Alabama

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The Constitution of the State of Alabama is the basic governing document of the U.S. state of Alabama. It was adopted in 1901 and is the sixth constitution that the state has had. The Constitutional Convention was called with the intention by white Democrats of the state "to establish white supremacy in this State", "within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution".[1] Its provisions essentially disenfranchised most African Americans and thousands of poor whites, who were excluded for decades.

At 310,296 words,[2] the document is 12 times longer than the average state constitution, 44 times longer than the U.S. Constitution, and is the longest[3] and most amended[4] constitution still operative anywhere in the world. The English version of the Constitution of India, the longest national constitution in the world, is about 117,369 words long, one-third 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 2017, is made up of its 926[5] amendments. About 75 percent of the amendments cover individual counties or cities, and some are so detailed as to deal with salaries of specific officials (e.g. Amendment 480 and the Greene County probate judge). As a result, Alabama has a very high number of constitutional officers and the constitution makes it very difficult for residents of most counties to solve their own problems.[6]

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.

History[edit]

Alabama has had six constitutions to date, all established via State Conventions: Wikisource-logo.svg 1819 (converting Alabama Territory into a State), 1861 (Secession), 1865 (Reconstruction), 1868 (Reconstruction), 1875 (ending Reconstruction), and, from 1901, the current document.[7]

General overview[edit]

The Alabama Constitution, in common with all other 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.

Notable features[edit]

The length and chaos of the current constitution is both the product and the result of a determined centralization by state legislators of power in the state government dating from the late 19th century, when white Democrats dominated state government. In addition, because of challenges from Populists in 1892 and 1894 elections, the Democratic Party intended to reduce the suffrage in order to secure its own dominance; it appealed to yeomen farmers of 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".[8] But Alabama's 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."[9] Glenn Feldman documented that, by 1941, more whites than blacks had been disenfranchised under this constitution.[9]

The 1901 constitution was intended to curb executive power and to "make it really hard to raise taxes".[10] 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 representatives of 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. As a result, the county legislative delegations have decided most local matters in the decades since this constitution was passed.

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, despite differences in population. The county's senator was in an especially powerful position, given that the county legislative delegation decided most local matters.

Although the lower house was to be apportioned based on each county's population, the legislature did not reapportion its districts for more than 60 years. This was in violation of the state constitution, which called for reapportionment each decade after the national census. The vast differences in population between urban and rural counties through those decades resulted in rural areas being grossly over-represented in the legislature, giving them outsized influence over state affairs. Developing urban areas were underserved for decades and ill represented. As a result of several federal court decisions in the late 1960s that mandated the principle of "one man, one vote", members of both houses of the legislature must be elected from districts of roughly equal population, and 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. With the buildup of the defense industry and regional needs during World War II in Birmingham and its area, Jefferson County was finally afforded limited home rule in 1944. Limited home rule has since been granted to six other counties—Lee, Mobile, Madison, Montgomery, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa.

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.[6]

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.[6] According to The New York Times, Alabama's tax code is one of the most regressive in the nation.[3]

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.[6]

Racial discrimination[edit]

In the 21st century, the document has been 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 beginning of the twentieth century, the President of the Alabama 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"[1] The convention was following a model established by Mississippi, whose 1890 constitution with similar provisions had already survived some federal court challenges.

Section 181 required voters to pass literacy tests in order to register, which were administered subjectively by white administrators to ensure most blacks were rejected. Section 180 was a grandfather clause, creating an exemption from the literacy test 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, but many illiterate whites could. Section 194 required the payment of 1.50 USD poll tax (Worth approximately 37.74 USD by CPI[11]). According to historian Glenn Feldman, by 1940 the cumulative poll tax had disenfranchised more poor white voters than blacks, but this is only due to a larger white population and the black population were still disenfranchised at much higher rates than whites.[12] These provisions were invalidated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided for federal oversight and enforcement of constitutional rights to suffrage.

The state constitution outlawed interracial marriage (Section 102). This provision was rendered inoperative by the US Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967), but was not removed until 2000 by Amendment 667.

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. The segregation clause 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 this 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 unclear of the 1956 amendment.[3]

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.[10] Conservatives objected to the proposal because it would have retained a 1901 clause mandating "a liberal system of public schools"; they feared it could be interpreted to require expanded financing for public education.[3]

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 that ended the guarantee of a public education to children of the state.[3] As a result, it was opposed by both the Alabama Education Association and 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.[3] Observers believed the bipartisan commission had some chance of success because it was "specifically barred from changing the tax code".[3] But, Amendment 4 was defeated.[10][13]

Voting restrictions[edit]

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 effective in 1920. But, the amendment remained as part of the state constitution until Amendment 579 was substituted, which contained no reference to gender.

Section 182 disqualified from registering or voting all "idiots and insane persons", and persons who married interracially, or were convicted of "crime against nature" (homosexuality) or vagrancy.

Size and local relevance[edit]

The state legislature has passed numerous amendments to legislate issues that apply only to one or a few counties, as can be seen from the following examples:

The Legislature has amended amendments to correct language and legislate special taxation (See other sections for more examples):

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Day 2 of 54, 1901 Proceedings, Constitutional Convention
  2. ^ "State & Local Government". whitehouse.gov. Retrieved 2015-12-01. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Alabama Simmers Before Vote on Its Constitution’s Racist Language", New York Times, 31 October 2012
  4. ^ Krishnamurthi, Vivek (2009). "Colonial Cousins: Explaining India and Canada's Unwritten Constitutional Principles" (PDF). Yale Journal of International Law. 34 (1): 219. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. 
  5. ^ http://alisondb.legislature.state.al.us/alison/codeofalabama/constitution/1901/toc.htm
  6. ^ a b c d Albert P. Brewer, "Home Rule", Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2007, accessed 3 February 2015
  7. ^ An Overview of Alabama's Six Constitutions, Alabama Legislature, retrieved 9 September 2018 
  8. ^ Joseph H. Taylor, "Populism and Disfranchisement in Alabama", The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Oct., 1949), pp. 410-427 (subscription required)
  9. ^ a b Glenn Feldman, The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004, pp. 135–136
  10. ^ a b c "Ala. Racist Language Measure Draws Unexpected Foes", NPR, 2 Nov 2012
  11. ^ Using http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ for 1.50 1901 dollars in 2007
  12. ^ Feldman, Glenn (2004). The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama. p. 136. ISBN 9780820326153. Retrieved May 8, 2018. 
  13. ^ "Amendment 4 fails, racist language stays", Alabama.com, 7 November 2012

External links[edit]