Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

The 1885 and 1889 Constitutional Convention Debates

Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

The 1885 and 1889 Constitutional Convention Debates

Article excerpt


As examined in a previous article, (1) the South Dakota Constitution has a somewhat convoluted beginning. The Constitution, adopted when South Dakota achieved statehood, was the product of three constitutional conventions. Each of the proposed constitutions produced by subsequent conventions built upon the work of previous conventions. Therefore, determining the intended meaning of provisions in the 1889 Constitution may require a consultation of debates related to similar provisions in previously proposed constitutions.

Consulting the constitutional debates, however, is a somewhat narrowed-focus endeavor. Most of the drafting work of the conventions was done in committees, but the debates and proceedings of those committees have largely not been preserved. Consequently, the only recorded debates are those that occurred at the convention at large. However, those convention's debates are not organized well or clearly regarding topic or subject matter.

Fortunately, the South Dakota legislature had the foresight to preserve and publish the convention debates from 1885 and 1889. An act entitled Act Providing for the Publication of the Debates of the Constitution Conventions of 1885 and 1889, enacted by the Legislature of the State of South Dakota of 1897, directed the state librarian to edit and prepare the 1885 and 1889 debates for publication. (2) The Act directed one thousand sets of the debates to be printed; it also directed the Secretary of State to supply six sets of the debates to the state library, the Supreme Court library, and the law school at Vermillion. (3)

The South Dakota Constitutional Convention Debates from 1885 and 1889 do not include the debates from the individual committee meetings. Rather, they include the debates only from when the convention gathered as whole. However, the majority of the work at the Constitutional Conventions occurred in committee meetings. The 1885 Convention had over thirty committees. This included: the Committee on State, County, and Municipal Indebtedness; Committee on Bill of Rights; Committee on Education and School Lands; Committee on Seal of State; Committee on Prohibition; Committee on Mines, Mining, and Water Rights; Committee on Federal Relations; Committee on Arrangement and Phraseology of the Constitution; Committee on Rights of Married Women; Committee on Seal of State, Coat of Arms, and Design of the Same; and Committee on State Institutions and Public Buildings, Including Penitentiaries and other Reformatory. (4)

Much of the text of the debates constitute such matters as opening prayers, clerical issues regarding the printing of reports about the debates for the public and ensuring that delegates had accurate copies of the constitution, and such procedural issues as roll call and delegate requests to be excused for various personal and professional reasons. In general, the conventions passed with no or very little debate on the vast majority of the reports and suggestions made by the committees. Only when something was controversial or of great importance did the convention as a whole debate the issue. Considering the importance of their task, delegates at the 1885 and 1889 Constitutional Conventions engaged very few issues in significant or extensive debate. Instead, much of the details of the various constitutional provisions were obviously ironed out in the committees, and the Convention delegates as a whole gave great deference to the work of the committees.

Although the Convention debates focused on specific issues and recommendations brought forth by committees to be considered by the delegates as a whole, some general themes did emerge throughout the 1885 and 1889 debates. During the 1885 and 1889 debates, for instance, multiple delegates expressed the tension between the competing interests of the smaller towns and the bigger cities, as well as the former's concerns that the interests of the rural areas of the state would be overcome by those of the bigger cities. …

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