Monday, June 9, 2014

Constitutionally Speaking

The Massachusetts Constitution is an important legal document in Massachusetts history. One interest researchers have in the Massachusetts Constitution is seeing the amendments that have passed, and when and how they have passed. The state constitution has three different ways it has been amended since it took effect in 1780.

The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution provides for the people to hold a vote on whether they wanted a special constitutional convention in 1795, which the people voted against. Another special convention was held in 1820 and the first nine amendments to the constitution passed. One was held in 1853 and the voters rejected all the amendments which were brought forth. A Special Constitutional Convention was held in 1917, 1918 and in 1919. In 1917 and 1918 Article 48 was passed which got rid of the provision for special constitutional conventions.

Another way to pass an amendment to the state constitution is to have the legislature propose constitutional amendments in a constitutional convention.  State constitutional conventions are held yearly. The legislature must pass an amendment in two consecutive sessions and then have the voters approve the amendment in the form of a ballot question in order to become law. All amendments to the constitution must be ratified or approved by the voters.  Some amendments passed by the legislature include:
  • Amending Article 18    Free exercise of religion; support of public schools; use of public money or credit for schools and institutions. 1855
  • Amending Article 64 Gubernatorial succession prior to inauguration. 1950
  • Amending Article 69 Enabling women to hold any state, county or municipal office. 1924
  • Amending Article 120 Prohibiting the right to vote for persons incarcerated due to a felony conviction. 2000
A third way to amend the state constitution is by initiative petition.  Article 48, sections 4 and 5, and articles 74 and 81 of the state constitution govern the procedures for initiative petitions.  This method of amending the state constitution was established in 1918 when article 48 was passed in a vote by the people. To get an amendment on the ballot ten qualified voters in Massachusetts write and sign an original petition. The Attorney General decides whether the petition is valid and prepares a summary. This summary and the petition are filed with the Secretary of State. Then it goes to the General Court and the initiative needs to get at least 25% of the legislators in two successive legislatures. It goes on the ballot and if at least 30% of the voters who cast ballots in the election vote on the question, and if a majority of the ballots cast approve the ballot question then it passes. Some amendments that went through the initiative petition process include:
  • Amending Article 101  Apportionment of senatorial, representative and councilor districts. 1930
  • Amending Article 106  Equal Rights amendment. 1976
  • Amending Article  114 Prohibit discrimination against handicapped persons. 1980 
A court case cannot directly change the Massachusetts Constitution. The matter would have to appear before the legislature and would have to appear on the ballot. The
Mum Bett (1781) and the Quock Walker (1781-1783) cases essentially got rid of slavery in Massachusetts but the Massachusetts Constitution was not changed until 1869 when the federal constitution changed.

Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian