A unique exercise in streamlined government is under way in
Florida, where a special commission has just recommended 33 changes
to the state's constitution - with many of the suggestions expected
to ignite a firestorm of debate.
Some of the issues are common-sense housecleaning measures, like
proposal to ensure that only gender-neutral language is used in the
state constitution. Others - like gun control and government
reorganization - are so controversial that state legislators have
avoided addressing them for years.
But now in 1998, Florida voters will have the opportunity to
decide these issues for themselves.
A provision of Florida's constitution mandates the appointment of
a constitution revision commission every 20 years to take a fresh
look at the state's No. 1 document and consider any changes.
The 37-member commission examined hundreds of proposals during a
series of hearings over the past year. Those proposals were narrowed
down and packaged as nine different questions that will appear on
statewide ballot this November.
While 15 other states also have mechanisms written into their
constitutions to periodically ask voters whether a constitutional
update should be considered, most have balked, turning down the
prospect of electing constitutional conventions and voting on
The Florida system is different. This is the only state in the
country with an automatic review provision. Every 20 years a
commission must be appointed, and it is up to the newly appointed
commissioners to determine the scope of their work.
"This idea of a regular look at the state constitution originates
with Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to apply it to the Virginia state
constitution, which he didn't think much of," says Robert Williams,
state constitutional law expert and law professor at Rutgers
University in Camden, N.J.
Jefferson believed "each generation ought to have a regular chance
to look at the state constitution that governs it."
No state has taken that philosophy to greater lengths than
Florida, which ratified a new constitution in 1968, replacing one
written in 1885.
Need for change
A quick glance at Florida's previous constitutions illustrates the
importance of weeding out offensive constitutional concepts.
Florida's first constitution, adopted 160 years ago, supported
slavery and urged the Legislature to pass laws to prevent freed
slaves "and other persons of color" from ever entering Florida.
Bankers and "ministers of the gospel" were barred from running for
the Legislature. And the constitution stated that only "free white
men of this State shall have the right to keep and bear arms, for
their common defense."
Although few residents would disagree that the old constitutions
needed to be revised, not everyone is happy with the prospect of an
unelected commission proposing an unlimited number of constitutional
amendments every 20 years.
Critics of the revision process say it is too easy in Florida to
change the constitution. Some say the job should be the exclusive
work of the state Legislature because, as elected officials, they
accountable directly to voters. …