The University of Konstanz in southwestern Germany has put together a really wonderful tool, the Database of Constitutions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Using it, you can glance through constitutions, amendments, and various constitutional documents for most of sub-Saharan Africa, using web sources and pdfs. It’s a work in progress, but it already has a sizable number of founding documents included. If you’re interested in constitutional law or politics in Africa, it’s a great resource to bookmark.
Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of a panel that I saw the Arizona Historical Society concerning the state’s constitution and its place in the progressive movement. It was interesting to hear about how groundbreaking Arizona’s founding document was and how involved labor and the progressive movement were in constructing that document, but it wasn’t entirely convincing since Arizona is so reactionary now. Arizona, after all, is the home to a slew of seemingly disastrous legislative ideas and hosts some of the most conservative state officials in the country.
The third speaker at Wednesday’s panel was Paul Bender, a law professor at ASU, who concentrated on Arizona’s State Supreme Court and explained how it had allowed – or took part in – the gradual crumbling of the state’s relatively progressive constitution. He broke his lecture into three ways in which the Court has treated the constitution: stripping it down, protecting it, and ignoring it altogether.
Bender argued that the Arizona Supreme Court was uncomfortable with the amount of direct democracy inherent in the constitution, and therefore allowed the state’s government to circumvent some of the obstacles that direct democracy created. The initiative process in the constitution allows the general public to circumvent the legislature in the lawmaking process, creating laws by popular ballot. This inherently implies that the legislature is beholden to what the people decide, however there were a number of instances in which the legislature repealed laws passed by initiative. When the issue was brought before the judicial branch, judges said they saw no issue with legislators opposing popular initiatives.
In addition, Bender explained, state legislation is not supposed to go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends, allowing time for the public to gather signatures for an opposing referendum if so desired. There is a provision that allows legislation to be enacted immediately during emergency situations, with 2/3 of the legislature’s approval. Often times, the legislature invokes an emergency without the grounds to do so, and when this is brought up to the courts, they deny review on the grounds that it is too political an issue.
And so we see instances in which the legislature pushes back against the control that the constitution grants the public over governance. But beyond this, we also see the judiciary stepping aside and allowing it to happen despite clear breaches of the law.
The Right to File Suit for Damages
The state of Arizona’s constitution specifically enumerates the right to sue for damages, which might seem bizarre to many. It’s as much a product of the times as the rest of the constitution – hearkening to labor’s involvement and the fear of major corporations corrupting the system. Indeed, there were some occasions of the legislation trying to limit the right to file suit through statues of limitations or restrictions on types of cases – all of which have been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why: the judges are preserving common law precedence. Men and women trained in the ways of law are working to preserve the law as it is. This doesn’t ring of hypocrisy when compared to the relatively foreign idea of the populace creating laws on their own. Where the courts were uncomfortable with direct democracy, they were more than comfortable with civil suits – and so they protected the notion of a right to sue.
The U.S. Bill of Rights specifies rights that the federal government cannot abridge. Historically, it did not apply to state governments until the Supreme Court began to implement a more activist reading of the document. It is for this reason that many states have almost identical rights included in their own state constitutions. Arizona is no different, except that the rights listed are more broad that the Bill of Rights. Take, for example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And compare it to the Arizona constitution’s Article II, Sections 5 and 6:
Section 5. The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.
Section 6. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.
The key difference is that the former specifies that one’s rights are protected from Congress, but makes no mention of state and local governments as well as private businesses and citizens. The latter simple states that everyone enjoys these rights – it implies that no one may abridge them. According to Bender, the Arizona Supreme Court has sometimes used to these provisions to protect people’s rights, but often defers to the more restrained precedence of the Supreme Court of the United States.
During the campaign to recall Governor Evan Mecham in 1987, campaign volunteers were prohibited from collecting signatures at some shopping malls – in Fiesta Mall Venture v. Mecham Recall Committee the state Appeals Court cited the U.S. Bill of Rights and upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court denied review. Similarly, in the case of Morton Berger, the state Supreme Court upheld his 200 year minimum sentencing for possession of child pornography, arguing that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedence instead of looking at the state constitution’s 8th amendment equivalent, Article 2, Section 15.
These are just some of the examples provided at the forum. It seems that the state’s judges have frequently ignored the progressive and protective provisions of the state’s constitution and instead either allow the legislature to be unaccountable or defer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. It is unfortunate to see the opportunity to defend civil liberties pass by because judges choose to forget that the state’s founding document protects them. But of course, judges in Arizona can be recalled and must pass retention votes every cycle – and several Republican lawmakers have threatened to do away with the merit-based selection system. While it is important to hold judges accountable as well, some of these rulings raise the question of whether or not judges should be elected and whether or not they are serving in the interests of the state’s constitution and the people who are protected by it – the public.
Last night, I attended a forum at the Arizona Historical Society on the state’s constitution. The panel at the forum was made up of a history professor (who taught the first university class I ever took!), a law professor, and a lawyer. I wanted to paraphrase some of what was discussed, as well as reflect a bit.
At the forum, historian Phillip VanderMeer touched on the historical context of Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. State governments had shifted from a strong legislature to increasingly balanced branches of government, and at the time of Arizona’s statehood, progressive ideas were finding their way into states’ founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments. At the turn of the century, Arizona’s economy was deeply influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the workers in these companies struggled to achieve rights. It was at the constitutional convention that organized labor brought ideas including an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists of labor leaders, and a ban on child labor – all of which made it into the constitution, along with broad progressive ideas such as initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.
Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer here in Arizona, spoke about the actual debates and influences on the constitutional convention in 1910. He explained the nature of Arizona’s divided demographics – the territorial legislature was predominantly Democrat, but the territorial governor (appointed by the President of the U.S.) was almost always Republican. Across the border, New Mexico was predominantly Republican, and so both states were admitted at the same time in the name of balance. Eckstein pointed to Arizona’s constitution’s progressiveness relative to our sister state’s founding document as well as contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He listed a number of things New Mexico’s constitution did not have, that Arizona’s did have (remember, this is in 1912, and both constitutions went into effect almost simultaneously):
- Popular Referendum
- 2 year terms for elected officials
- Advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate
- Direct primaries
- Public campaign contribution provisions
- State anti-trust laws
- Progressive income tax
Some of these are clearly at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was talking about campaign finance, direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax before the federal government had made any headway on these issues. Women gained suffrage in 1912, before the 19th Amendment was passed, and prohibition in 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment. President Taft opposed the right to recall judges, leading the territory to remove the provision in order to gain statehood – only to reinstate it almost immediately.
Progressive ideals, especially the idea that the government should be held accountable to the public, is clear in Arizona’s constitution. Two year terms for elected office and the ability to recall elected officials combine for a strong opportunity to keep lawmakers on tight reins. In addition, the executive branch in Arizona was very weak – he was among over a dozen elected officials in the executive and had relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.
While some Arizonans today are unfortunately supportive of the more restrictive pieces of legislation put forth in the legislature, the real problem is that the constitution is no longer recognized for what it is supposed to do – lawmakers are not answering to the public and the three branches are not utilizing checks and balances. One of the main tenets of the constitution – to hold government accountable to the public – isn’t happening anymore. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as much as they should – even in light of the recent recall of Russell Pearce.
Update: The sequel of this post, examining how the state’s courts have treated the constitution, can be found here.