The Center for Constitutional Studies (CSS) hosted several speakers to speak on the importance of state constitutions in day-to-day life during a conference held on Nov. 3 and Nov. 4.
In addition to CSS, the event was sponsored by the Utah Federalism Commission (UFC), whose goal is to educate about federalism and advocate for constitutional issues according to their site. Furthermore, the commission runs the Federalism Index Project, which is the education wing of UFC.
The keynote speaker of the event was John Dinan, professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. Dinan emphasized the importance of paying attention to what happens at state levels, beyond issues happening at the national level.
CSS was first founded as a non-partisan institution at UVU back in 2011. CSS’s goal has been to show the importance of constitutional issues, and to engage students using conferences and other mediums that relate students to law, politics, religion and history.
“It is important that this [CSS] conference analyzes state constitutions,” said Dinan. Referencing the recent state elections on Nov. 2, he explained that many of the laws we follow are passed at state levels.
“While many were focused on Virginia’s governor race, I was focused on how the recent election saw 14 amendments proposed to several states,” said Dinan. “Every state constitution is amended more than the federal constitution.”
State constitutions have been the focal point of many social clashes throughout the years. Enduring changes in American society are often the result of constitutional amendments proposed at the state-level, leading to challenges and occasionally appeals in federal courts. Changes to policies regarding same-sex marriage, free speech, enviromental issues and many more have come from state rulings or subsequent challenges to these rulings.
“State constitutions allow for marginalized groups to press for rights that might be adopted at the federal level,” remarked Dinan. “It is healthy to lead through state constitutions on legal consensus.”
Dinan claimed that many tend to forget about the importance of state constitutions in the legal realm. He believes a reason for this misconception is the difference in content between state constitutions and federal constitutions.
Some state constitutions were drafted to address the unique issues and fundamental values of each state. These topics can be diverse, such as the right to fish in the Utah state constitution or the recently passed right to clean air in New York.
Each constitution is unique in myriad ways from content to length, and some are longer than others. Dinan challenged attendees to read their state constitutions, “except Alabama,” he joked, due to the fact that Alabama’s constitution is over 400,000 words long (about 587 pages long).
“Federalism isn’t always the subject that leaps off the page [for students],” said Dinan. “We have to take baby steps, one of them [for all of you] is to read your state’s constitution.”