Academic journal article Albany Law Review

State Constitutional Reform: Is It Necessary?

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

State Constitutional Reform: Is It Necessary?

Article excerpt

During the 1994 New York State Commission on Constitutional Revision, a member of the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters argued that the state constitution was too long and too policy-oriented. "The New York State Constitution is one of the wordiest in the 50 states,"(1) Helen Obrist averred. "Much of what it contains should be in a statutory law, not in a basic document like the Constitution."(2) As a result, she continued, the state constitution "is nearly impenetrable and it is, all-in-all, an obsolete document, not suited to 21st Century needs."(3)

Obrist's criticism was offered with suggestion for reform. Improvement of the state constitution, she concluded, could be made by revising the document to make it more like its federal counterpart.(4) Obrist offered the example of a neighboring state that had done exactly that. "In 1967, Connecticut streamlined [its] Constitution to resemble the U.S. Constitution,"(5) Obrist declared. "Connecticut now has a viable, basic document which does the job it was designed to do and is adaptable even as times change."(6)

Concern over the design of the state constitution is not unique to New York.(7) During the last decade the four most populous states in the Union--California, New York, Florida, and Texas oath conducted a serious review of its state constitution. Political scientists, legal scholars, and politicians were involved in varying degrees and capacities. Among their chief concerns was that their state constitutions had become somewhat dated.(8) Compared to the United States Constitution, the state constitutions seemed long, poorly organized, and cluttered by extra-constitutional material.(9)

The preferred solution among reformers is a shorter and more straightforward constitution along the lines of the U.S. Constitution.(10) But to what end? Do we really need to revise our state constitutions? Before we start tampering with our states' fundamental charters, perhaps we should first assess the condition and performance of these important documents. In this article, I hope to show that the design of most state constitutions is not only adequate, but may actually be superior to the proposed model that many constitutional reformers prefer.


One of the most frequent criticisms of state constitutions regards their excessive length and unusual content. Given the statistics provided in Table 1,(11) the concern of state constitutional reformers is easy to understand. Table 1 indicates that the average state constitution contains around 34,000 words,(12) almost five times the length of the 7500 word U.S. Constitution.(13) The Alabama Constitution of 1901 is the longest state constitution, at 310,296 words over forty-one times the length of the U.S. Constitution.(14) The New York Constitution weighs in at 51,700 words, almost seven times the length of the U.S. Constitution.(15) Even the shortest state constitution--Vermont at 8295 words--is longer than its national counterpart.(16) In every instance, state constitutions are longer than the U.S. Constitution. Why?

TABLE 1. State Constitutional Length in Total Number of Provisions
(and Total Number of Words)

State             Provisions (Words)

Alabama              5204 (310,296)
Alaska                723 (15,988)
Arizona              1007 (28,876)
Arkansas             1550 (40,720)
California           1263 (54,645)
Colorado             1168 (45,679)
Connecticut           393 (16,608)
Delaware              558 (19,000)
Florida               793 (38,000)
Georgia               960 (37,849)
Hawaii                549 (20,774)
Idaho                 328 (23,442)
Illinois              538 (13,700)
Indiana               390 (10,315)
Iowa                  328 (12,616)
Kansas                439 (12,616)
Kentucky              697 (23,911)
Louisiana            1537 (54,112)
Maine                 361 (13,500)
Maryland              937 (41,349)
Massachusetts         836 (36,700)
Michigan              770 (25,530)
Minnesota             353 (11,547)
Mississippi           619 (24,323)
Missouri             1313 (42,000)
Montana               443 (13,726)
Nebraska              623 (20,048)
Nevada                588 (20,700)
New Hampshire         335 (9,200)
New Jersey            453 (17,800)
New Mexico            838 (27,200)
New York             1093 (51,700)
North Carolina        410 (11,000)
North Dakota          565 (20,564)
Ohio                 1012 (36,900)
Oklahoma             1630 (79,153)
Oregon                758 (49,326)
Pennsylvania          670 (27,503)
Rhode Island          282 (10,233)
South Carolina        721 (22,500)
South Dakota          601 (23,515)
Tennessee             391 (15,300)
Texas                1841 (80,806)
Utah                  500 (11,000)
Vermont               233 (8,295)
Virginia              579 (21,092)
Washington           1232 (50,237)
West Virginia         725 (26,000)
Wisconsin             405 (14,392)
Wyoming               576 (31,800)

Average State Constitution   828 (34,000)

United States Constitution   240 (7500)

Note: Data regarding provisions collected by textual analysis of
state constitutions. … 
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