Commentary

Montana’s last, best document

March 10, 2022 4:07 am

The Montana State Capitol in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

I have been a journalist in seven states, including my home state of Montana.

And I am not sure that in those other six states many residents were aware that there was a state constitution. And, even if they were, even fewer could name something unique or important that it said. And, even fewer yet could say anything definitive about how it was created.

The same is oddly true for state songs.

But M-O-N-T-A-N-A, as our state song spells out, I love you.

This is the only state I’ve lived where people are aware of their state constitution, know how it was created, and still discuss it.

And adding to the list of things that make this such a unique place: I have never had weeks’ worth of commentaries that discuss the benefits and intricacies of the document like in Montana. As you may have read, columnists like former Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson has written about how the Constitution impacts our daily lives. Evan Barrett wrote about the civility in how the state’s Constitution was put together in 1972. And, Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, pointed out that facial recognition technology, which has started its slow creep into government work, may pose a threat to our Constitutional guarantee of privacy, which is the most extensive in any state.

I can’t recall one column written in any of the other six states dealing with the state’s constitution and its guarantees.

Maybe part of the reason is because our state Constitution is among the newest, even at 50 years old. It was written at the conclusion of a particularly turbulent time in our history, the 1960s, where social upheaval and a better understanding of environmental degradation indicated that our original state Constitution, developed in 1889, was hopelessly and irretrievably out of date.

In fact, there’s so much love, interest and debate surrounding the Constitution that Montana State University and our colleagues at the Montana Free Press are sponsoring a celebration and discussion of the document 50 years later.

Montana Constitution Preamble

We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.

For Montanans, being vocal and interested in state politics and history is about as natural as going for hike or heading out to fish. But, for those of us who have spent time outside the confines of the state, it’s nothing short of remarkable.

Much of this current discussion was sparked by two events. First Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, made the outrageous claim that the state’s Constitution was nothing more than a “socialist rag,” that needed replacing.

Leave it up to a guy from Florida to raise the hackles of many Montana natives.

The mere suggestion that the state’s foundational document is trash is so upsetting that it has spurred a renaissance of study and conversation of the Constitution. That alone is just as telling as the historically ill-informed opinion of Skees.

Secondly, as Skees and his cadre of Republican leaders have led such a dominating and sudden takeover of state government, GOP members haven’t been shy about setting their sights on a super-supermajority, which would allow them to edit, change or rewrite the Constitution more easily. They would need to pick up just two seats to do that, something that should give every Montanan pause, regardless of party.

Yet, with just a handful of original Constitutional Convention members living, I also sense the apprehension of more moderate lawmakers, many who were born after the document was ratified, to start meddling with what have been regarded as sacred words.

And there’s a silver lining for the Treasure State.

The Montana Constitution is an expansive and remarkable statement of rights and aspirations about what Montana can and should be when it’s at its best, which means governed not by politicians, but by the people.

Did you know…
Three other states have adopted “new” Constitutions after Montana. Georgia and Louisiana adopted new constitutions after Montana. Rhode Island adopted its most recent state constitution in 1986. Montana is among the least “amended” state constitutions, while other states have more than 100.

Maybe the Constitution has never worked harder.

It’s spurring conversation after conversation, column after column, of what we expect from our government and leaders, and what we want this great state to look like. The Constitution was not intended to be a static historical document, rather a dynamic and responsive document. It was meant to spur conversation about what we value, what we cherish, and how we want to live.

We are meant to debate and discuss the issues and our state’s Constitution gives us the framework – one that I believe was inspired by folks who loved this state just as much as we love it now.

The genius isn’t in how the words came together or what they said, but that it’s meant to be a starting point for discussing rights and debating the limits of government. It’s meant to provoke citizens to stand up and express their opinions and to get involved.

So, as much as I vehemently and stridently oppose Skees’ interpretation of the document and would suggest he and his native state’s governor are a better fit for each other, I want to thank him. His comments, whether off-handed or more deliberate, have fomented a new and passionate response to this hallowed Constitution. As more people explore our state’s expansive and visionary document, they will hopefully learn that Montana isn’t just the last best place, but it’s protected by the last, best Constitution.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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