Law Matters: A Celebration of Two
Content date: 09/09/2005
The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Michael A.
Wolff make up his September 2005 Law
As we prepare for Constitution Day, a new celebration honoring our
United States constitution's September 17 anniversary, we can take time to
consider the miracle the founders created more than 200 years ago.
In 1787, after many heated arguments about what form
the new American government would take, the delegates to the constitutional
convention finished their draft of the constitution, reflecting a series of
compromises that wholly pleased none of them. The new constitution was brief – a
few thousand words – and its backers wrote essays known as the Federalist Papers
to explain it and to sell it to the states.
the American Revolution, it was said that the King of England would be replaced
by the law
as king. The
constitution drafters, however, knew the law itself could be an instrument of
oppression and so hoped to avoid a concentration of power in any person or
group. Today, we refer to this "rule of law" as a necessary feature of our
The new constitution entrusted
sovereign power in the people and made governing an art form: the art of
compromise; the art of protecting the rights of individuals and political
minorities from oppression by the majority; and the art of dispersing power
evenly among the branches of government to avoid the excesses of a king.
What the constitution produced was a federal
republic – "federal" because it recognized the sovereignty and power of the
states over all matters not otherwise assigned to the central government, and
"republic" because it distributed power among three coequal branches of
government: a legislative branch to write laws; an executive branch to carry
them out; and a judicial branch to resolve disputes and to ensure that the laws
do not disturb the sovereign power of the people as expressed in their
While many can claim great knowledge of
the U.S. Constitution, few people can claim even to have read the entire
Missouri Constitution. At about 65,000 words, the state constitution certainly
weighs more than its federal counterpart, which now contains about 7,500 words.
And in the way that it affects our daily lives and the conduct of our civic
affairs, Missouri's constitution has its own unique and important place in our
democratic system of government that the founders
While the American government still is
using its first constitution, Missouri is on its fourth version. The first –
created in 1820, a year before our statehood – lasted until the end of the Civil
War. Missourians later adopted new constitutions following constitutional
conventions in 1865, 1875, and 1943 to 1944.
Constitution was adopted after ratification by state legislatures. It also is
amended by this method of indirect democracy –approval by the people's elected
representatives. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are initiated by a
two-thirds vote in each house of Congress and are ratified by the legislatures
of three-fourths of the states. The fact that in 218 years, only 27 amendments
have been adopted – including the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of
Rights – shows the difficulty of amending the U.S.
Missouri's constitution, by contrast,
is a product of direct democracy. Once Missouri became a state, its
constitutions have been drafted during constitutional conventions and adopted by
a vote of the people. Since its adoption in 1945, the current constitution has
been amended more than 200 times – each time by popular vote following either
referral by the legislature or a petition by voters to place a proposal on the
Despite their striking differences, the
state and federal constitutions share much in common. Each is designed to
establish the institutions of government … and to protect its citizens from
government abuses. Each structures government with an executive branch headed by
a chief executive, a legislative branch consisting of two bodies and a judicial
branch. Each also offers similar guarantees to citizens, including the rights of
due process and equal protection of the law.
federal constitution empowers states to shape their own constitutions, as long
as states do not limit rights the U.S. Constitution guarantees to citizens or
otherwise violate the U.S. Constitution. As a result, in nearly every respect,
the Missouri Constitution is more explicit than its federal counterpart. The
state constitution details the organization of local governments, from counties
and cities to school districts to sewer districts, and its taxation provisions
are highly detailed. Missouri also goes further in its guarantees to its
citizens. For example, Missouri's constitution guarantees certain rights to
crime victims; the federal constitution does not.
Much of what the federal government does today results from the federal
government's varying and expansive readings over time of the relatively brief
provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Remember, however, that when this document
was written in 1787, the founders could not possibly envision our modern society
with its cars and computers and commerce.
other hand, most changes in Missouri's constitutional interpretation have
occurred not by government action but rather by the people's votes on explicit
amendments to make their constitution grow to keep up with the needs of modern
society. For instance, the Missouri Constitution forbade gaming until the 1990s,
when it was changed – not by legislators or judges, but by voters in popular
elections. Missouri's constitution ultimately is controlled directly by the
votes of its people. As noted earlier, the same is not true at the federal
Federal law now mandates
that we study the U.S. Constitution in observance of Constitution Day. But let
us not forget the importance of the Missouri Constitution as well. Both
constitutions are worthy of study and celebration.
For discussion questions for classrooms and civic groups, please go
under the Educators