Law Matters: A Celebration of Two Constitutions
Content date: 09/09/2005

The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff make up his September 2005 Law Matters column.

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.

During 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 democratic system.

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 constitution.

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 envisioned.

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.

The U.S. 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. Constitution.

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 ballot. 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.

The 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.

On the 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 level.

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 to www.mobar.org under the Educators section.