State Constitutions

A state constitution is the supreme law of that state.  State constitutions establish certain organs of government for the State, vest these organs with their powers, and deny certain other powers. 

Like the federal Constitution, the written constitutions of the States do not comprise the entire “constitution” or fundamental law.  In addition to the constitutions, each State government rests upon legislative enactments, executive decrees, judicial rulings, custom and habit.  Often, the constitution of one state differs from that of another in various aspects.  However, in their principal elements, state constitutions are all similar to one another.

The general nature of State Constitutions is as follows:

1. The powers of State governments

The general nature of State constitutions is based upon the type of powers that State governments possess and exercise.  According to the Tenth Amendment to the federal Constitution, “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.”

2. Length of State constitutions

State constitutions are quite long.  The shortest is that of Vermont, which contains 8,295 words, while Alabama’s sixth and most recent constitution, ratified in 1901, is 340,136 words long.

3. The Contents of State Constitutions

State constitutions resemble each other in general outline.  The contents of most of the state constitutions can be summarized as follows:

a. Preamble

A State constitution usually opens with a preamble, which is a brief foreword setting forth the presumed reasons for which the constitution was drafted and adopted.

b. Protections of rights

Every State constitution possesses a “bill of rights” or “declaration of rights.”

c. Suffrage and elections

State constitutions have considerable portions dealing with the suffrage and elections.  They specify the various qualifications for the electorate.  They set the dates for particular elections and establish the local administrative machinery for the balloting.

d. Organs of government

State constitutions provide for the organs of the State government such as:

  • Legislature
  • The office of the Governor
  • Attorney General
  • The secretary of state
  • The Judiciary

The constitution may contain other provisions endowing the organs with some of their powers.

e. Local government

State constitutions include considerable portions devoted to the establishment and regulation of the various types of local government.

f. Taxation and debt

The State constitutions set forth the power of the State government to levy taxes and to incur debt.

g. Powers of government

The largest part of the State constitution is devoted to an enumeration of the general powers of the State government.

h. Amendment and Revision

A final portion of the State constitution provides means for amending and revising it.  There are three methods usually appearing in State constitutions whereby the constitution may be amended or revised:

(1) Legislative proposal;

(2) Popular initiative; and

(3) Constitutional convention.

Moreover, there is a fourth formal means of constitutional commission that is not specifically authorized by any State constitution but accepted by the courts.


Inside State Constitutions