The Nation's Longest Constitution Just Got Longer

By on December 10th, 2014 in , , : in State & Local Government

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It’s now official. In 2014, Alabama added 12 more amendments to its constitution, bringing the total number to 892. The State Elections Canvassing Board met the final week in November and certified the election results.

The additions include amendments restating, in stronger term,s the right to hunt, fish, and bear arms. The Alabama Constitution of 1901 also now allows a sewer authority in Franklin County to provide broadband internet and requires a $1 per bale assessment on each bale of cotton to be used for cotton promotion (With the latest amendment, you can’t ask for a rebate on that assessment).

The additional verbiage added this year will allow Alabama to continue padding its lead in constitutional length. Alabama not only has longest state constitution in the U.S, it is perhaps the longest constitutional document in the world.

By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is more than twice as old and has only been amended 26 times. State constitutions do tend to be more detailed and amended more often. But the average number of amendments across the states is 150. The next closest state to Alabama is California with 527 amendments.

According to a tally kept by the Council of State Governments, Alabama’s Constitution, at more than 376,000 words (without the 12 new amendments) is more than four times as long as the Texas Constitution. That’s the second longest state constitution, at just under 87,000 words.

That makes from interesting trivia, but does it matter?

If you want clarity, efficiency, and effectiveness, it does matter. If you want responsibility and accountability, Alabama’s constitution is indeed a problem.

Typically, constitutions describe principles and fundamental philosophy, set out a framework for government structure, and divide state powers among the branches and between state and local governments.

The Alabama Constitution, by contrast, goes into tedious detail. While the constitution may have started by laying out general statewide principles, its accumulation of amendments is due in to the exceptions to those principles and special cases made for specific localities. It is estimated that 70 percent of the amendments are local in nature. Which begs the question: Why are they in the state constitution?

The framers of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 wanted to set limits on government. In particular, they wanted strict limitations on what local governments could do. So, they set up a system in which many local decisions have to flow through state government for approval. The local amendments to the Constitution are only the top layer of complexity. Below that, the state legislature has passed over 36,000 local laws which apply to specific counties or municipalities.

The heavy involvement of state legislators in local affairs tends to create confusion about who is responsible for decision-making. It also blurs the lines of accountability when things go wrong. And finally, it also interferes with the development of a culture of statewide planning and policy making, which the state needs the Legislature to play.

Despite the energy put into constitutional reform efforts over the decades, the issue of granting local governments more independence has been one of the most intractable.  The latest Constitutional Reform Commission finished its work earlier this year, and its final round of proposals included an amendment that would have granted counties limited home rule in some aspects of their operations. That proposed amendment failed to pass the Legislature.