Suppressing silliness
Birmingham News, March 5, 2004

Dueling just a small part of what ails constitution

There it is, in black and white in Section 86 of the 1901 Alabama Constitution:

"The legislature shall pass such penal laws as it may deem expedient to suppress the evil practice of dueling."

Apparently, the Legislature has done a pretty fair job of suppressing dueling in Alabama. When's the last time we've had a good duel?

Wednesday, the House Constitution and Elections Committee approved a bill introduced by Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, that would remove the language about dueling from the constitution. McLaughlin said he introduced the bill to draw attention to the need to change the state's 103-year-old document.

"This is one thing we can chuckle about, but there's a lot in there we can't laugh about," McLaughlin said. "It doesn't make sense for it to be part of the framework of our government."

Good for McLaughlin for calling attention to our bloated, embarrassing, hammerlocking state constitution. There are a whole lot of things - in the body of the constitution and its 740-plus amendments - that have no business being in there. They range from silly to downright evil.

Here are some of our favorites:

Poll taxes and literacy requirements that were designed to keep poor whites and blacks from voting.

A prohibition on spending state dollars on internal improvements such as roads and bridges.

A ban on "any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro."

No self-rule for counties, forcing them to go to the Legislature to pass laws.

Amendments that would allow counties to control mosquitoes and rodents, let them excavate human graves, allow them to control malaria. There's even an amendment specific to Jefferson County that outlaws prostitution in unincorporated parts of the county, but only Jefferson County.

Mind you, these are part of what is supposed to be a fundamental charter between the state and its people, something that spells out in broad terms citizens' rights and government's responsibilities. Instead, the Alabama Constitution has become an extension of the state code.

Yes, federal laws and court cases have nullified the racist aspects of the constitution. (An amendment a few years back lifted the ban on interracial marriages.) But more than a century after its framers drafted the constitution, it continues to do what they intended: concentrates power in Montgomery, keeps taxes low and funding for social services minuscule and, above all, maintains the status quo.

Ironically, if McLaughlin's attempt to call attention to the constitution passes the Legislature, it could make the world's longest constitution even longer. Voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to remove the dueling language.

What's really needed, of course, is a brand new document, one written for the 21st century instead of the 19th. The days of dueling are done; the days of Alabama's 1901 Constitution ought to be.

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