Arizona’s Progressive Constitution – 100 Years Ago

Last night, I attended a forum at the Arizona Historical Society on the state’s constitution. The panel at the forum was made up of a history professor (who taught the first university class I ever took!), a law professor, and a lawyer. I wanted to paraphrase some of what was discussed, as well as reflect a bit.

Arizona on the verge of statehood in 1911.

At the forum, historian Phillip VanderMeer touched on the historical context of Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. State governments had shifted from a strong legislature to increasingly balanced branches of government, and at the time of Arizona’s statehood, progressive ideas were finding their way into states’ founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments. At the turn of the century, Arizona’s economy was deeply influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the workers in these companies struggled to achieve rights. It was at the constitutional convention that organized labor brought ideas including an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists of labor leaders, and a ban on child labor – all of which made it into the constitution, along with broad progressive ideas such as initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.

Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer here in Arizona, spoke about the actual debates and influences on the constitutional convention in 1910. He explained the nature of Arizona’s divided demographics – the territorial legislature was predominantly Democrat, but the territorial governor (appointed by the President of the U.S.) was almost always Republican. Across the border, New Mexico was predominantly Republican, and so both states were admitted at the same time in the name of balance. Eckstein pointed to Arizona’s constitution’s progressiveness relative to our sister state’s founding document as well as contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He listed a number of things New Mexico’s constitution did not have, that Arizona’s did have (remember, this is in 1912, and both constitutions went into effect almost simultaneously):

  • Initiative
  • Popular Referendum
  • 2 year terms for elected officials
  • Advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate
  • Direct primaries
  • Public campaign contribution provisions
  • State anti-trust laws
  • Progressive income tax

Some of these are clearly at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was talking about campaign finance, direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax before the federal government had made any headway on these issues. Women gained suffrage in 1912, before the 19th Amendment was passed, and prohibition in 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment. President Taft opposed the right to recall judges, leading the territory to remove the provision in order to gain statehood – only to reinstate it almost immediately.

Progressive ideals, especially the idea that the government should be held accountable to the public, is clear in Arizona’s constitution. Two year terms for elected office and the ability to recall elected officials combine for a strong opportunity to keep lawmakers on tight reins. In addition, the executive branch in Arizona was very weak – he was among over a dozen elected officials in the executive and had relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.

While some Arizonans today are unfortunately supportive of the more restrictive pieces of legislation put forth in the legislature, the real problem is that the constitution is no longer recognized for what it is supposed to do – lawmakers are not answering to the public and the three branches are not utilizing checks and balances. One of the main tenets of the constitution – to hold government accountable to the public – isn’t happening anymore. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as much as they should – even in light of the recent recall of Russell Pearce.

Update: The sequel of this post, examining how the state’s courts have treated the constitution, can be found here.

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