State Constitutions: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore state constitutions. All fifty states, and even some U.S. territories, have a state constitution in place, and their origin, domain, length, and time of writing can vary wildly from state to state.

Rights

You do not have to turn the radio dial very far to hear someone carrying on about their 'rights.' Gun rights, rights to free speech, property rights - you name it. What some of these same people do not realize, however, is that the only reason these rights are their birthright is because they are enshrined in our constitutions.

It is not just the U.S. that has a constitution; indeed, other countries, new and old (such as Canada and Egypt), have them as well. What does make the U.S. unique is the idea of a state constitution. While Canadian provinces and English counties do not have constitutions, all fifty U.S. states have state constitutions of their own.

Characteristics and Origins

Though there is no document explicitly stating that a constitution is required of each state, the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution delegates any laws or legal domains not enshrined in the Constitution to the domain of the states. Though again, this does not directly mean each state must have a constitution, it follows logically that each state would likely want a single document which all other laws in the state could be measured against, in the same way federal law is measured against the U.S. Constitution.

State constitutions vary wildly in their construction, domains, and time of origin. For example, Massachusetts still functions on its relatively brief state constitution that was promulgated while the Revolutionary War still raged on in 1780. In contrast, Georgia functions on a constitution that was only written in 1983! While the pluralities of states have only written one state constitution, several states have felt the need to rewrite their constitution numerous times. Louisiana and Georgia, for instance, are each on their ninth constitution. Vermont has the shortest constitution at just over 8,000 words, while Alabama's sixth and longest attempt, ratified in 1901, goes on for more than 350,000 words!

Common Laws and Fun Facts

The most important function of many state constitutions is to provide a framework for the governance of the state. Many are modeled on the U.S. Constitution, but some differ importantly. Nebraska, for instance, opted for a unicameral legislature when designing their state government. All constitutions also provide a framework for the judicial system, and many include a Bill of Rights that often restates and/or expands upon the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

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