For the state of South Carolina’s first 119 years — from 1776 to 1895 — leaders wrote or rewrote the state constitution six times, or about once every 20 years. Since then? Nothing. No full rewrites, just amendments.
This is relevant in light of a new book by 94-year-old retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who suggests six amendments to the U.S. Constitution to make the federal government work better. A major recommendation is to put “reasonable limits” on campaign contributions to keep rich people and corporate interests from overly influencing elections. He also called for limiting individual gun rights, ending the death penalty, ending gerrymandered congressional districts, requiring states to enforce federal laws and removing governmental immunity from liability.
You might not agree with anything Stevens advocates, but it’s good that he’s suggesting ways to make government work better on a federal level. In turn, that leads us to thoughts about how amending our state’s 119-year-old constitution — or just completely rewriting it — might make state government much more accountable, more transparent, less cumbersome, less bureaucratic and less paternalistic.
The current state constitution, you might recall, was written by white guys — effectively the only people who could vote then — in the Jim Crow era. It still includes archaic language on things like literacy tests and countywide senatorial districts that have been ruled out of order by federal courts.
“What we’ve been doing for more than a century is amending a document that arose in the days after the Civil War when horses and buggies were a primary means of transport and the telephone was a newfangled invention,” wrote Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen in his campaign treatise, The Right Way. “The constitution that South Carolina operates under today continues to reflect populist urges present on the state level in the late 1800s and an approach to government and governing that are no longer wise in the 21st century.”
Sheheen believes the current state constitution needs to be overhauled completely to get rid of the dead wood and bring it up to date. To do so, voters would have to agree to a constitutional convention of delegates picked by the General Assembly. The alternative to updating the state constitution is to slog through changing it via the amendment process, which also requires voter approval.
“I am not opposed to healing our government incrementally,” Sheheen wrote. “I am, however, skeptical that our current leaders will finish the job with that approach. I believe that when a government has reached such a level of dysfunction and disintegration as South Carolina’s, it is time to return the power to the people.”
In the current legislative session, lawmakers proposed about 60 constitutional amendments, some of which were duplicates. They called for making several constitutional officers (lieutenant governor, adjutant general, agriculture commissioner, comptroller general, secretary of state and state superintendent) appointed, not elected positions. They sought to use the amendment process to change divorce law, limit spending, limit legislative terms, change ethics laws, set a minimum wage, dedicate a continuing revenue stream to the state judiciary, allow raffles and make shorter legislative sessions. Perhaps the most important change introduced was to require public schools to deliver a “high quality” education, instead of the minimally adequate education interpreted in 1999 by the state Supreme Court.
As of this week, the General Assembly has sent 161 measures to the governor that have been ratified into law. The only legislative proposal involving a constitutional amendment was to ask voters if they wanted charitable organizations to be able to hold raffles.
In other words, despite lots of talk, huffing and puffing about changing the constitution, not much is really being done on a constitutional structural level to make things work better.
While it might be good to amend the state constitution to update it similar to what Stevens proposes at the federal level, the current insider game at the legislature effectively thwarts that notion. So it just might be a good time to do what Sheheen suggests — have a real constitutional convention.
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