Stateline Story

Constitutional Reform Struggles For Life In Alabama

  • May 22, 2000
  • By Gene Owens

When the year 2000 comes to a close, the state of Alabama can count on basking in at least two distinctions:

(1) The University of Alabama football team will be in the nation's top 10 - or at least its top 20.

(2) The Alabama state constitution will be by far the oldest state constitution in the nation.

Few Alabamans outside of a handful of die-hard Auburn fans would begrudge the Crimson Tide its place among the gridiron elite. But a number of the state's intellectual leaders are complaining that the antiquated, obese constitution is a fatal drag on the state's economic and social progress.

The constitution, adopted in 1901 as a bulwark for white supremacy, has accumulated 664 amendments since then, and the number grows with each general election. It still forbids interracial marriage (although the prohibition is meaningless under the federal Constitution). It still denies Alabama localities, and especially Alabama counties, anything more than rudimentary home rule.

When it comes to taxing and spending, the constitution earmarks most of the revenue coming into state coffers, leaving the Legislature with few options for raising revenue or for shifting money to meet changing priorities.

Last summer, a private foundation, Citizens for Constitutional Reform, was set up with the express purpose of promoting a constitutional convention to produce a new basic document for the state. It is headed by President Thomas Corts of Birmingham's Samford University.

On the surface, the road to reform would seem smooth.

On May 18, the Huntsville Times published the results of a survey showing that 88 percent of the state's legislators believed the state needed a new constitution.

Yet, the Legislature said no this month to both avenues for changing the constitution: a constitutional convention or an amendment-by-amendment revision through the Legislature./University of South Alabama Poll, conducted the second week in May, found that 57 percent of its 400-person sample favored a new constitution, and 51 percent wanted it done by convention. Yet, constitutional reform has never been a make-or-break issue in Alabama politics.

The current constitution was ratified in 1901 in an election widely believed to be fraudulent. Wayne Flynt, the Auburn University professor regarded as the state's pre-eminent historian, put it this way: "The great ship of state was about to be torpedoed by that navy of unwashed people at the forks of the creek." So the power elite ordered up a new constitution.

"It was racist, and it was fraudulently enacted," Flynt told a constitutional rally in Tuscaloosa. "For a century, we have let the shame of this constitution govern every decision we have made."

The framers of the constitution drove their constitution into the political structure like a heavy spike into ironwood, and nobody since has been able to budge it.

Gov. "Big Jim" Folsom, in the '40s and '50s, made a try. But the Supreme Court's school-desegregation decision of 1954 soon riveted the state's attention on other matters.

Albert Brewer, the lieutenant governor who became governor in 1968 on the death of Lurleen Wallace, set up a commission to make recommendations on constitutional reform. But by the time the commission had made its report, the state had voted George Wallace back into office, and Wallace was unwilling to replace the document under which he had wielded power.

Bill Baxley, another lieutenant governor, led a successful effort to push a new constitution through the Legislature and onto the general election ballot. But before the people could speak, the state Supreme Court ruled that the constitution could not be revised through a single amendment proposed by the Legislature. It had to be taken apart andput back together an amendment at a time. Or it had to be revised by a constitutional convention that would be independent of the Legislature.

No governor since Brewer has mustered the commitment to reform the constitution. Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, has the energy and the expertise to bring about constitutional reform. But he hasn't shown the enthusiasm.

Secretary of State Jim Bennett, a Republican, is talking about running for governor as an advocate of constitutional reform.

But the next governor's race is two years away, and Siegelman shows signs of becoming a two-term governor.

Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, a policy research group that is supportive of a new constitution, called this year's legislative rejection a bump in the rough road to reform.

It looks as though it's going to be a long road.