The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide

The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide

The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide

The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide

Synopsis

John Dinan, Zachary T. Smith Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wake Forest University, analyzes the history and development of the Virginia Constitution and undertakes a detailed treatment of the evolving interpretation of each section, as seen in constitutional conventions, revisions commissions, judicial decisions, attorney general opinions, and legislative and gubernatorial deliberations. He also reveals that few states have made more opportunities that Virginia to engage in constitutional revision and, in the process, to debate fundamental political questions, whether in regard to the rights and liberties to which citizens are entitled, the extent of popular participation in governance, or the means of structuring governmental institutions.

Excerpt

In 1776, following the declaration of independence from England, the former colonies began to draft their own constitutions Their handiwork attracted widespread interest, and draft constitutions circulated up and down the Atlantic sea-board, as constitution-makers sought to benefit from the insights of their counterparts in sister states. In Europe, the new constitutions found a ready audience seeking enlightenment from the American experiments in self-government. Even the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, despite their reservations about the course of political developments in the states during the decade after independence, found much that was useful in the newly adopted constitutions. And when James Madison, fulfilling a pledge given during the ratification debates, drafted the federal Bill of Rights, he found his model in the famous Declaration of Rights of the Virginia Constitution.

By the 1900s, however, few people would have looked to state constitutions for enlightenment. Instead, a familiar litany of complaints was heard whenever state constitutions were mentioned. State constitutions were too long and too detailed, combining basic principles with policy prescriptions and prohibitions that had no place in the fundamental law of a state. By including such provisions, it was argued, state constitutions deprived state governments of the flexibility they needed to respond effectively in changing circumstances. This—among other factors—encouraged political reformers to look to the federal government, which was not plagued by such constitutional constraints, thereby shifting the locus of political initiative away from the states. Meanwhile, civil libertarians concluded that state bills of rights, at least as interpreted by state courts, did not adequately protect rights and therefore looked to the federal courts and the federal Bill of Rights for redress. As power and responsibility shifted from the states to . . .

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