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Montana politicians gather to remember the 1972 Constitutional Convention

Montana Capitol
William Marcus
/
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol

Fifty years ago this week, delegates found consensus and signed a new state Constitution. Montana politicians, journalists and a delegate to the 1972 Constitutional Convention gathered Tuesday to reminisce on the creation of the state’s Bill of Rights.

All 100 constitutional convention delegates signed the Bill of Rights on March 22, 1972.

Max Baucus, Montana’s longest serving U.S. Senator and a young staffer at the convention, said that kind of consensus would not be possible today.

“We’re lucky that this Constitution was written 50 years ago at a time in Montana history, in American history, where we were more civil, more likely to reach agreements. Sure, there were differences of opinion, but more likely.”

Baucus and others spoke at the panel put together by Montana Free Press at Montana State University.

Montana’s Constitutional Convention was made up of 58 Democrats, 36 Republicans and six Independents elected to serve as delegates. Their job was to rewrite the 1889 state Constitution, which had been largely influenced by the powerful and wealthy Copper Kings.

Mae Nan Ellingson, the youngest delegate at the convention, said the former document was long, complicated and included legislation for each right. She said at Tuesday’s panel that in 1972, people wanted a new approach.

“We believed that if we set out a big, broad framework of what a Constitution should be – separation of powers, a strong bill of rights, a very simple taxation article – it allowed the Legislature to legislate.”

Ellingson said Montana was following a trend of many states wanting to update their constitutions. Another trend, Ellingson said, was the push for right-to-know laws.

Chuck Johnson, a longtime Montana political reporter, was an intern at a state legislative session before the Constitutional Convention. He said public access was drastically different before the convention.

“The executive sessions in committees where they decide whether to amend or pass or kill the bill – the door was closed. No one could enter that except the legislators and their staff. Just the opposite at the convention.”

Johnson said the Montana Constitution’s right-to-know provision made huge strides for public participation in government, but it’s still under scrutiny today.

He gave the example of a recent Montana Supreme Court decision ruling that state lawmakers can intentionally hold party caucus meetings without a quorum so they remain closed.

"Don’t mean to offend the Supreme Court justices, but that was a horrible decision in my opinion," Johnson said.

The event also included a reading of the Indian Education for All provision of the state Constitution, which requires Montana schools to teach American Indian history and culture. Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who is Blackfeet and an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes, called that addition powerful.

Montana failed to elect a single Native American delegate to the Constitutional Convention. But, Juneau said, that didn’t stop Native Americans from showing up to demand representation.

“I think it shows the power of advocacy and how representation matters and how people want to see themselves reflected in the founding documents of who we are as citizens and as a state and as a country.”

A proposal put forth by two Native American students is what ultimately became the right to Indian Education for All.

Former Gov. Marc Racicot closed the panel by speaking about extreme polarization that has taken hold of politics, its threat to democracy and why present-day policymakers should reflect on the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention and its delegates.

“It was also a reflection of their confidence in one another, the presumption of innocence they offered to one another, the respect they had for one another, and they were bound by a moral code that includes dignity and decency and consideration. That’s the spirit of the Constitution,” Racicot said.

After all 100 delegates signed the Montana Constitution, it was put before voters for consideration. The document was then ratified on June 6, 1972.