The Oklahoma Constitution (Part One)

U.S. ConstitutionThe U.S. Constitution, including all 27 Amendments, takes up less than 14 pages as a Word document with normal fonts and margins. The Oklahoma Constitution, in contrast, takes 221 pages.

So already you can see a problem.

The first effort to craft a state constitution – a necessary precursor to being admitted into the Union AS a state – came in Muskogee in 1905. The ‘Sequoyah Constitution’ foreshadowed many of the elements which would eventually become part of our state’s semi-supreme law, but assumed separate admission for Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, a 'two-state solution.' Given the likelihood both would be staunchly pro-Democrat, the Republicans in control of Washington shut that idea down immediately.

“Alfalfa Bill” Murray, a delegate to that convention and subsequent Representative and OK Governor, shared his recollections 25 years later:

We knew that it must stand before Congress above ridicule; and in harmony with the best modern thought for the protection of life, liberty, property, and the citizens' highest estimate of intelligence and progress. 

Alfalfa Bill MurrayIf you know anything about Alfalfa Bill, this is either painfully ironic or ridiculously amusing. Even if you don’t, the founding of Oklahoma on ‘modern thought’ and the ‘highest estimate of intelligence and progress’ should produce some sort of reaction. Perhaps even involuntary regurgitation. 

For this reason, neither {Charles} Haskell nor I left the Convention or Committees for a moment, and we were the only persons there every moment. For days at a time, we alone were present. He lived at the Hotel in an apartment and I boarded there. 

And a century later we’re terrified of who might be in the next bathroom stall.

Day and night we were on the bridge, and at the wheel, looking for icebergs, the shoals, and shallows of an uncharted sea. I have never regretted it, for without this experience the work so well done in the Guthrie Convention later, would have been impossible. The Sequoyah Convention gave us the outlines of an organization. 

Oklahomans love our maritime metaphors.

State of SequoyahIn 1906, the U.S. Congress passed the “Oklahoma Enabling Act,” providing for a single state to be formed from Oklahoma and Indian Territories. Each half sent delegates – mostly Democrats – and William H. Murray was – big shocker here – elected president of this new Constitutional Convention. 

This was a time not far removed from the Populist Party’s dominance across the Great Plains and not long before the Progressive Era would bring dramatic reforms in how elections were run and how many different things the federal government was willing to regulate. It should be no surprise, then, that while in 2016 Oklahoma is considered ‘red’ for its staunch Republican leanings, a century ago it was brought into the Union as close to ‘red’ in the 'OMG Socialists!' sense of the term as it could be and still secure Congressional approval.

OK Const Conv

I use excerpts from the Oklahoma Historical Society when we introduce the State Constitution in class:

The drafters recognized the importance of separation of powers by creating the legislative, executive, and judicial departments... They also recognized the state as a part of the Union, giving a constitutional nod to the notion of federalism. They also explicitly recognized (unlike the framers of the U.S. Constitution) the power of Oklahoma courts to exercise judicial review. 

OKHSEarly in the document (Article II), the drafters enumerated thirty-three rights in the Bill of Rights Article. This was followed by the article on suffrage. The right to vote, except in school board elections, was restricted to males. (The constitution was amended giving women the right to vote in 1918, two years before the U.S. Constitution was amended giving women the right to vote.) 

The legislative article describes the branch (House members have two-year terms; Senators have four-year terms) and gives the power of the legislature. The influence of the Progressive Movement can be seen in the numerous restrictions placed on that body. 

The article on the executive branch was similar to that found in most other states. The governor was given a four-year term and was prohibited from being elected twice successively (amended in 1966, in the Governors Consecutive Terms Amendment, so that a governor could be elected to two successive terms). Numerous executive offices and boards were created, all mostly elected positions. 

OK Constitution Reference GuideThat thing where so many positions are elected rather than appointed is creating headaches even today. It was an age of ‘let the people decide’, creating rules not conducive to our love of ‘voting the party ticket’ for everything from Governor to Dog Catcher to Insurance Commissioner. 

The judicial article provided for the election of judges (changed years later to appointment with retention elections) and stipulated that juries of fewer than twelve members could be used in some cases.

Several provisions of the constitution were included for the regulation of certain interests. Entire articles were devoted to corporations (IX), revenue and taxation (X), education (XIII), and banks and banking (XIV). The details of these articles display the drafters' distrust of legislatures and a concern for problems occurring during territorial days. 

Imagine a time in which you couldn't trust your own legislature to do the right thing when it came to revenue and taxation, big money interests, or public education! That must have been difficult for them, way back then.

The progressive spirit was also evident in the provisions permitting the initiative and referendum. Only four other states (of the forty-six states in 1907) included these provisions in their constitutions. Provisions were also included for amending the constitution, including allowing the voters themselves to initiate and approve amendments (only the second state to allow this method, called initiative and referendum). 

Populist Party Banner

One of the issues not often discussed when we celebrate all this power in the hands of the common man is how easily manipulated by fear and ignorance they tend to be. I mean, there’s a reason they’re the ‘common man’, right?

Oklahoma's constitution of about fifty thousand words, one of the nation's longest, has been made longer by the relatively frequent use of the amending process (although the document has never been completely rewritten).

Amending has also resulted in a number of significant changes. Following a 1941 amendment the legislature has been required to balance the state's budget. In 1966 an amendment allowed annual legislative sessions (although in 1989 the voters approved an amendment mandating short legislative sessions). In 1990 Oklahoma became the first state (through amending) to place term limits on members of the state legislature, in the Term Limits Amendment. In 1992 voters approved an amendment stipulating that no bill passed by the legislature raising taxes would go into effect unless passed by a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Men in HatsThat last part is what’s been so-often cited to explain why we simply CAN’T slow down the almost complete elimination of taxes for anyone wearing expensive suits and smoking cigars in darkened back rooms. Once the process is begun, the argument goes, any reduction of the destruction amounts to a ‘tax increase’.

Yeah, I know – it’s shaky reasoning, but it’s a large part of why we’re going after single moms and old people rather than so much as slow down the feeding of our children to the wealthy and powerful. 

WJBWilliam Jennings Bryan told the members of the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention that they had borrowed the best provisions of the existing state and national constitutions and had, in the process, created the best constitution ever written. Scholars who believe that brief constitutions devoid of policy make the best constitutions would disagree with Bryan's assessment.

No doubt.

I’m going to do my best to unravel some of that Constitution and see if it does indeed, as so many of our elected leaders insist, cry out for the elimination of virtually all public services while glorifying gun fetishism and mandating evangelicalism throughout all public institutions - because… Obama!

If it does, I owe several sitting legislators an apology. 

RELATED POST: The Oklahoma Constitution (Part Two)

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