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State Constitutions and American Federalism

State Constitutions and American Federalism was a Federalism Index Project event that took place at UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies from November 3-4, 2021. The event was sponsored and made possible by the Utah Federalism Commission.

Last fall, scholars and intellectuals from across the country gathered together at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies to discuss a relatively unfamiliar topic: state constitutions and their significance for understanding American federalism.

Dr. John Dinan of Wake Forest University offered the keynote address for the conference. His address focused on the “prominent role of state constitutions in America.” He laid out three important distinctions between state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution: their ease of amendment, their length, and their level of detail.

Fun fact: Alabama has not only the longest constitution in America but the longest and most amended in the world, coming in at 388,882 words (that’s 51 times longer than the U.S. Constitution). It has 950 amendments.

Those who are particularly concerned with the temperature of contemporary politics would be most interested in one of Dr. Dinan’s main points, that “State constitutions offer an alternative venue other than courts [and the federal amendment process] for groups seeking to bring about constitutional change....” Professor Dinan went on to suggest that the unique features of state constitutions allow for more responsive government and protection of rights. Perhaps the most intriguing assertion in the conference arises from this observation; namely, that our approach to the U.S. Constitution could benefit from considering how state constitutions work, how they are amended, and how these features may inform our approach to Constitutional change at the federal level.

Fun fact: In 2020, voters across the country considered 113 amendments to their state constitutions.

The two-day event also included presentations on the following areas:

  • State Constitutions and American Political Development with Dr. Sean Beienburg of Arizona State University, Dr. Silvana Siddali of St. Louis University, and Dr. Robinson Woodward-Burns of Howard University. This panel touched on a range of topics including: the compatibility of federalism with various ideologies across the spectrum; the role that state constitutions play in clarifying how citizens view their relationship with their various forms of government; and the stability that state constitutions offer by providing more governing flexibility closer to the people.

Fun fact: Massachusetts was the last of the original 13 states to ratify a state constitution in 1780. That same constitution, written by John Adams, is still in effect in the Commonwealth. It has 120 amendments.
  • State Constitutions as Guardians of Rights with Jonathan Marshfield of Nebraska Law School, Lawrence Freidman of New England Law, and Dr. John Dinan. These presentations explored how state constitutions have impacted our jurisprudential conception of rights; the development of a “new judicial federalism” with state courts taking an increasingly independent role in interpreting rights; and how state constitutional amendments can expand rights even beyond those protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Fun Fact: Louisiana has gone through 11 different constitutions in its history, the most of all the states. It adopted its most recent constitution in 1975.

  • Intra and Interstate Conflicts with Dr. Lori-Riverstone Newel of Illinois State University, Josh Blackman of South Texas College of Law Houston, and Richard Briffault of Columbia Law School. This panel discussed policy preemption both top-down and bottom-up; the history of how state constitutionalism and federalism have dealt with controversial issues like vaccine mandates; and the nature of state and local government relations.

Fun Fact: Only 20 states are still utilizing their original constitutions. All other states have adopted new constitutions at least once.
  • Creation and Consequence: State Constitutional Amendments with Dr. Adam Brown of Brigham Young University, Dr. Nancy Martorano-Miller of the University of Dayton, and Josh Altic of Ballotpedia. These panelists analyzed the broad realities and residual effects of how constitutions are proposed, ratified, and further amended.

Fun Fact: Since the nation’s founding, there have been 233 state constitutional conventions.
  • What Do We Know, and How Do We Feel About Our State Constitutions? with Dr. Alan Tarr of Rutgers, Dr. J.H. Snider of, and Dr. James Zink of North Carolina State University. Panelists focused on the ways in which state constitutions are utilized as codes for ordinary law and not just fundamental law; how states with routine ballot referendums hold constitutional conventions; and whether “constitutional veneration” is a healthy aspect of civil society.

Fun Fact: Fourteen states have automatic ballot initiatives triggered after a set period of years where citizens can choose to convene a constitutional convention.

UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies has become an important gathering place for constitutional academics, educators, and state leaders interested in improving constitutional literacy. As can be seen through the rich array of topics and presentations, state constitutions play an essential role in American federalism. The conference was both a unique event and a great opportunity for students and the public to learn more about America’s 51 constitutions.

If you are interested in similar events, both the Federalism Index Project and UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies work hard to organize thought-provoking and relevant gatherings throughout the year. Check here and here for upcoming events.

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