What role do constitutions play? The difference between state and national charters At the House Judiciary Committee, which met before its Senate counterpart on January 25 (see story above), representatives heard from former Rep. James R. Eddy, who chaired a joint House-Senate panel that approved the final version of the 1968 constitution, and Robert F. Williams, a Rutgers University law professor and expert on state constitutions.Williams told the committee the role of state constitutions is evolving and their purpose is different from the federal Constitution in that they may address more local issues and reflect regional concerns. Even the idea of what is fundamental and should be addressed by a state constitution is changing.Constitutional scholars once cited the provisions in the Louisiana Constitution that addressed and regulated levees as an example of cluttering up a state charter.“If you talk to someone in Louisiana now, I think the attitude has changed since the hurricane [Katrina] and it [the constitutional levee provisions] seems pretty much fundamental,” he said.“State constitutions have been transformed into a multipurpose document,” he said. “They serve as a tool for lawmaking and policymaking. It’s true in every state, even those with the shorter constitutions. The gap between the federal Constitution and the state constitution is widening, and I think that’s a pattern that is going to continue in the future.”Williams advised the committee to look at why certain provisions were put in the constitution. In some cases, he said, it was to bypass the legislature because it had declined to take up the issue or its solution was unsatisfactory to voters. In other cases, provisions were placed in the constitution to inoculate a statutory provision against a constitutional challenge in the courts. And some are just statements of the public’s policy preferences, such as the English only amendment in the Florida Constitution, he said.Consequently, Williams said the committee should consider three factors when streamlining the constitution. One is the traditional matters of laying out the structure of government and the separation of powers between the three branches. The second is the delineation of rights of citizens. The third more difficult area is identifying policies and preferences that are so important to voters that even though they might be addressed by statute, the public prefers they be enshrined in the state’s charter.Eddy gave a history of the adoption of the state’s 1968 constitution, which replaced the previous 1885 document. He said the joint legislative committee reviewed and refined the recommendations from the special commission [chaired by former Florida Bar and ABA President Chesterfield Smith] that drafted the basic document. He noted that lawmakers made more than 700 individual votes on what to include or leave out of the constitution before sending it to voters.Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Pompano Beach, asked to see a record of those votes, to determine how legislators reached their decisions on what should be included. February 15, 2006 Regular News What role do constitutions play?