Sen Del Marsh hopeful that voters will purge segregationist wording from Alabama Constitution
by Tim Lockette
Aug 16, 2013 | 3260 views |  0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HOOVER — Two past efforts to scrub racist wording out of the Alabama Constitution have failed, but state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, believes the third try will work.

In a speech Thursday night at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Marsh said the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission — authors of the latest proposal to take school-segregation wording out of the constitution — so far have a good track record for getting constitutional amendments passed.

“Every article that has come out of this commission so far has been passed by the people,” Marsh said.

Marsh, the president pro tem of the state Senate, drafted the legislation that created the 16-member Constitutional Revision Commission, a group charged with an article-by-article rewrite of the Alabama Constitution of 1901. The constitution has been amended nearly 900 times, and is by far the longest state constitution in the country.

Marsh made his remarks at the annual award dinner held by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, or ACCR, a nonprofit group that advocates replacing or reforming the 1901 constitution. Marsh accepted the group’s highest honor, the Bailey Thompson Award, on behalf of the commission.

Members of ACCR praised commission members for the effort they’ve put into rewriting the document. But by most accounts, the bulk of the commission’s work lies ahead.

Recommendations by the commission must be passed by the Legislature as amendments and approved by voters before they become part of the constitution. So far, only minor revisions — rewrites of antiquated language about telegraph lines and railroads — have made it through the entire process.

This month, commissioners approved a proposal that would take out a provision that mandates separate schools “for white and colored children.” That mandate hasn’t been enforceable since the 1960s, but advocates of constitutional change say it’s an embarrassment to the state.

Voters have already shot down two previous proposals to change the wording, largely because of disagreement about whether the state should retain additional wording that states that education is not a right. The wording matters, some say, because it could affect an old but still-undecided court case over equitable funding for schools.

The commission’s proposal would erase the segregationist passage, and adds wording stating that nothing in that section of the document creates a judicially enforceable right — but it stops short of saying explicitly that Alabama residents have no right to an education.

Marsh said he was confident the commission’s proposal would get public support. Earlier changes to wording in banking and corporations, he said, failed in the Legislature until the commission put its weight behind them.

Next week, the commission may again take up the thorny issue of home rule for counties. The 1901 Alabama Constitution gives county commissions little power, forcing individual counties to seek constitutional amendments in order to make even small changes in policy. Constitutional reformers say that’s one of the main reasons the document has ballooned to its current size.

The commission began debating the home rule issue last year, but never brought the matter to a vote. Commission members seemed divided between various proposals, including a proposal to create different classes of counties with different powers and a proposal to give counties freedom to make decisions that could later be reviewed by the Legislature.

Marsh and other commission members at the dinner were tight-lipped about which proposal they’d support next week.

Commission member and state Rep . Randy Davis, R-Daphne, said his own county, Baldwin, had broad home rule powers, something he supports.

“There are issues that just don’t need to be in the Legislature,” he said. Still, he declined to say which home rule option he preferred, saying he’d discuss it in the commission meetings.

Members of ACCR praised the commission for making headway on changing to the constitution. Still, many didn’t hide the fact that they’d rather see a constitutional convention to replace the document completely. Transcripts from the 1901 constitutional convention show the document’s framers openly discussing how the constitution could be used to maintain white supremacy – something many reformers see as a fatal flaw.

“The 1901 constitution will still be with us” when the commission is done with its work, said Bob Jones, president of the ACCR Foundation, ACCR’s fundraising arm.

“We need to keep on keeping on until we get a new constitution,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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