By Bailey Thomson
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
Thus ACCR is working on two fronts education and
political action to push this issue to the top of the states
In June, at an annual retreat, ACCRs 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
As the need for reform becomes more evident every day,
the question arises: How do we get a new constitution and whos
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 peoples
highest aspirations for their government. It also represents the limitations
they wish to place on their government and the rights they wish to
Second, citizens have made it clear that they do not
want the Legislature to rewrite the states 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 wont special interests
dominate such an event? Will the peoples 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
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
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
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 peoples 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. Constitutions
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 countys 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.
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