The next steps for reform

Speech by Bailey Thomson at the Auburn-Opelika Forum
on constitutional reform, Nov. 27, 2001.

By Bailey Thomson
Associate professor, Journalism, University of Alabama

   On April 7, 2000, about 600 citizens gathered for an outdoor rally on the historic grounds of the old state Capitol at Tuscaloosa. Since that event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, constitutional reform has become one of the top public issues in our state.

   Also, a grass-roots organization called Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform sprang from that rally. ACCR now is a strong and trusted advocate for better government.

   Its leaders include esteemed Alabamians such as Dr. Thomas Corts, president of Samford University; former U.S. Rep. Jack Edwards of Mobile; Odessa Woolfolk, a Birmingham civic leader and civil rights advocate; and Howard Hawk, a former legislative leader and now a judge in Marshall County.

   ACCR has about 1,400 dues-paying members in its statewide organization and its three affiliates. Its primary mission is to educate Alabamians about the need for a new constitution. It has a sister organization that is devoted to lobbying the Legislature to move on this issue.

   Thus ACCR is working on two fronts — education and political action — to push this issue to the top of the state’s agenda.

   In June, at an annual retreat, ACCR’s board adopted a set of principles that I wish to share with you. I also want to update you on what needs to happen next for reform to continue moving forward.

   As the need for reform becomes more evident every day, the question arises: How do we get a new constitution and who’s going to write it.

   Well, we have only two methods available for reform.

   The first, outlined in Section 286 of the constitution, is for the Legislature to call a constitutional convention. Alabama has had six constitutions since statehood in 1819, and all six were written by this convention method.

   The second method is for the Legislature to amend the constitution one article at a time and submit each article to the voters. This method has been used one time, in 1973.

   The Legislature, in response to leadership within our legal profession, rewrote Article Six and thereby modernized our judiciary. Voters approved the amendment.

   At ACCR, we hold dear the principle that only the people, through their elected convention delegates, should rewrite the constitution. This approach makes good sense for two reasons:

   First, in our democracy, all power emanates from the people. A constitution, as fundamental law, represents the people’s highest aspirations for their government. It also represents the limitations they wish to place on their government and the rights they wish to protect.

   Second, citizens have made it clear that they do not want the Legislature to rewrite the state’s highest law. Poll after poll has shown that people do not trust their legislators with this task. Moreover, the Legislature has shown little inclination thus far to assume this responsibility.

   So again, we at ACCR will advocate a citizens’ convention to rewrite the constitution.

   The question often arises: But won’t special interests dominate such an event? Will the people’s voices really be heard?

   The quick response to that concern is that special interests already have enormous influence over our Legislature. And certainly many of these groups are single-minded in their actions. They have an interest only in what affects them and their livelihood. Some of these private groups show little or no commitment to the advancement of the state or the prosperity of all of its citizens.

   We know without doubt that these special interest groups can be relentless in pressuring the Legislature. And we are all aware of the river of money that flows into political campaigns.

   So if the concern is about special interests, then having the Legislature rewrite our fundamental charter is not an attractive option.

   With proper and careful design of a convention, however, this influence of special interests can at least be restricted. For example, the Legislature can put reasonable limits on how much money any candidate running for a convention seat may accept.

   But I think an even more powerful safeguard is the role that citizens themselves will play in this historic opportunity. They already are organizing at the grass-roots level to support an open and high-minded process for change.

   Moreover, many citizens will gladly put themselves forward as convention candidates. They may not have time to be legislators. Or perhaps they are not willing to tolerate the fund-raising that legislative service entails. But many good people would be willing to serve their state on a one-time basis as a convention delegate.

   Many such delegates would be motivated by high ideals of citizenship. Therefore, they would be less susceptible to influence by special interests than would be those politicians who seek four-year legislative terms.

   When you come down to it, however, any reform that is truly effective entails a certain risk. We simply cannot guarantee outcomes in a democratic process.

   For that reason, ACCR embraces a second important principle: Any proposed new constitution must be submitted to the voters for final approval.

   Unfortunately, the present document is vague about whether voters now have this right. For this reason, ACCR promoted and won passage of a proposed a constitutional amendment that would clarify the people’s right to approve or reject any new document. I believe voters will approve this amendment in the next general election, thereby removing any doubt as to who shall have the final word.

   Allow me briefly to outline several other principles that ACCR advocates, as we go forward with reform.
First, we believe that a new constitution should keep the preamble to the 1901 constitution, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God. Faith and its values are fundamental to our people and should be re-affirmed in any new charter.

   Second, we believe that the current Judicial Article, as amended and ratified by the people in 1973, should be retained. This article has been widely hailed as a model for other states.

  Third, a new constitution must include a declaration of rights that protects individual liberty, much like the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

   Further, a new constitution should limit government to public purposes, rather than reflect the interests of any special group. Toward that end, the constitution should state emphatically that providing quality public education is a prime function of government.

   Finally, we need a constitution in Alabama that allows local people in Lee County, for example, to make decisions about matters that exclusively concern them. By the same measure, voters in Lee County should not be asked to decide whether Limestone County can build a jail or dispose of dead farm animals.

   Our urban counties, in particular, are long overdue for local democracy. A new constitution is the ideal way to grant our people that right. We believe, however, that each county’s voters should decide whether they want local self government.

   As we move forward, ACCR will work to ensure that any new constitution embodies these principles I have outlined. By embracing a process of reform that reflects American-style democracy, with faith and trust in the people, we citizens can achieve a new constitution for an even better Alabama.

   Thank you.

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Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 34
Montgomery, Alabama 36101-0034

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