Vermont Constitution resists change

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(Host) More than 6,000 amendments have been added to the constitutions of the 50 states in the past 200 years. Vermont’s contribution to that number is a meager 53. Vermont has the shortest and least amended state constitution in the country.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports on why Vermonters are so reluctant to change it:

(Zind) There’s a lot of activity at the Statehouse this year. In addition to the usual lawmaking, there are several efforts to amend the Vermont Constitution.

By law, the opportunity to propose an amendment comes around only once every four years. Once introduced, a proposal needs the support of two-thirds of the Senate, and a majority vote in the House. Then it has win approval in the next legislative session. If it clears those hurdles, it’s finally put to a vote of the people.

Supreme Court Justice John Dooley says that’s too much. He says Vermonters have made it too hard to change their constitution:

(Dooley) “I’m a great believer in the fact that constitutions ought not to be easy to amend. But we’ve really carried that philosophy to an extreme.”

(Zind) Speaking at symposium at Vermont Law School, Dooley said Vermont’s constitution is historically significant but, in many ways, irrelevant. Dooley says the antique provisions of the constitution are sometimes hard to apply to today’s world. He says if people don’t like the way the high court is interpreting the constitution, they should be able to change it.

(Dooley) “There’s a decision you don’t like, everyone wants to amend the constitution. Then you run up against the fact it’s virtually unamendable. You’ve got to have two-thirds of a vote in the Senate, you’ve got to get the House, then the Senate, you’ve got to get the House, you’ve got to get the people. Then you give up and you lose interest in the constitution. That’s exactly the wrong process!”

(Zind) Dooley and the court have been criticized for being an activist court, favoring a too broad interpretation of the constitution, especially in landmark decisions that led to civil unions and the Act 60 education funding law.

University of Vermont Political Science Professor Frank Bryan is one of those critics. But Bryan says he agrees with Dooley that the constitution should be easier to amend. He says more specific language would give the court less leeway to interpret the constitution:

(Bryan) “An easier way to amend the constitution would limit the power of the court. And I think Justice Dooley is saying, ‘Don’t complain, Frank Bryan, unless you’re willing to make the constitution easier to amend.'”

(Zind) There doesn’t appear to be much legislative support for changing the process. Republican Representative Peg Flory is a Pittsford lawyer who heads the House Judiciary Committee.

(Flory) “The way the amendment process is structured now, it requires that thoughtful consideration and I think that’s a good thing.”

(Zind) Flory says the Legislature can simply write better statutes to clarify the meaning of the constitution.

But Dooley finds it ironic that a document that’s been the basis for nationally recognized court decisions, isn’t of greater interest to the people of Vermont. He says shortening the amendment process would allow Vermonters to breathe new life into their constitution.

(Dooley) “We’re virtually unique in our lack of interest in our constitution as any kind of living document.”

(Zind) Despite the flurry of amendments being considered this session, no lawmakers are proposing changing process of amending the constitution.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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