State Constitution vs. Federal Constitution

State Constitution vs. Federal Constitution

( – Our Founders first envisioned the United States of America as 13 sovereign states with a central government to regulate issues among them and represent the Union to the world at large. We can see this vision is born out in three places in the documents that created the country:

  1. The Declaration of Independence itself says “as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace… Things which Independent States may of right do.”
  2. The 10th amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
  3. Article IV of the Constitution starts like this “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union, a republican form of government…”

The distinction is important to our understanding of why we have a Federal Constitution and now, 64 individual state/territory constitutions. While both the decision by President Abraham Lincoln to deem the secession of the southern states illegal and the ensuing Civil War moved much of the power to the federal government, states’ autonomy and ability to self-rule was not removed.

The Constitution of the United States of America

The document that was first ratified by the colonies did not have any amendments. Those, especially the ones ensuring individual and states’ rights, came later. The framers intent was to set up the basic structure of the centralized government, which they did by creating three branches. Those three branches are:

Executive — the office of the president and the cabinets to execute the laws.

Legislative — the House of Representatives and the Senate, collectively known as Congress to create the laws.

Judicial — one Supreme Court and other lower courts that Congress might create to interpret the laws.

The Constitution became official on September 17, 1787, with the agreement that the concerns that some of the individual states had would be addressed at a later date. There were originally 12 amendments proposed, but only 10 were ratified — and on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was added.

Although they used the word “rights,” it might be more accurate to call it the “Bill of Limitations.” Many of the amendments addressed limiting intrusions by the government, as can be seen in the first line of the First Amendment which begins, “Congress shall make no law…” Together the amendments guaranteed personal freedoms and limited federal government overreach.

The Other 64

Each of the 50 states and 14 territories — such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands — have constitutions that are effective within their borders. These are the supreme laws within each division, except that they may not oppose the Federal Constitution. For example, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments combined to outlaw slavery, so none of the founding charters of the others can say it’s legal.

These rules might cover many of the same topics we see covered under the umbrella of federal jurisdictions or they may allow for more range, individualized to the locality or population. For example, the Ohio Constitution lists crime victims’ rights which are guaranteed during the prosecution of the accused.

The text of the Indiana State Constitution provides another example of the wider range allowed by state or territory constitutions. In 2016, the voters of the state adopted an amendment that guaranteed the rights of Hoosier state citizens to “hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife.”

These are just two examples of how each region might express important values through their constitutions. Considering the global span of territories that fall under the laws of the United States of America, trying to develop a one size fits all system would have been doomed to failure.

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