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As Montana's constitution turns 50, some worry its legacy is not guaranteed

Former Gov. Marc Racicot, 1972 Constitutional Convention delegate Mae Nan Ellingson, and former Gov. Steve Bullock speaking at the Capitol in Helena for the 50th anniversary celebration (left to right).
Shaylee Ragar
Former Gov. Marc Racicot, 1972 Constitutional Convention delegate Mae Nan Ellingson, and former Gov. Steve Bullock speaking at the Capitol in Helena for the 50th anniversary celebration (left to right).

This week’s two-day celebration of the Montana constitution’s 50th anniversary came with a warning: the document’s legacy is not guaranteed.

At the opening of the celebration, which took place at the Capitol in Helena, a roll call was taken of all 100 delegates who served at the 1972 Montana constitutional convention. Eight of the ten living delegates answered the roll call, including Arlyne Reichert of Great Falls, who is 96-years-old.

“Thank you. I’m actually present, believe it or not.”

Reichert offered a fond, idyllic memory of the process of rewriting Montana’s original 1889 constitution. The original document was largely written to benefit the state’s ‘Copper Kings,’ the wealthy men who owned much of the state’s mining industry and held enormous political power.

“What we did when we wrote that document is we just kept thinking about Montana. We forgot about our party affiliations, we forgot about everything else. The important thing was Montana and its future.”

Many marvel at what happened during the convention – delegates sat alphabetically instead of by party. Sitting legislators were barred from holding public office to avoid conflicts of interest. 19 women were elected to the convention at a time when no more than two women had ever served in the state legislature at the same time.

While the constitution is seen as progressive for its time, some say there are still flaws.

18-year-old Shayla Walkingchild said she’s thankful the constitution was rewritten in 1972, but noted that not a single Native American was elected as a delegate to the convention – even though American Indians have lived on this land since time immemorial.

“I do think this country has had a lot of primarily white representatives for the country, and we do need some diversity, especially Native Americans.”

Walkingchild was one of the few young people participating in the constitution celebration. She performed a traditional Ojibwe jingle dance meant to encourage healing with her siblings during one of the events.

Walkingchild says she encourages her peers to pay attention to current events and politics surrounding the constitution.

“Just pay attention to it, get involved, and interact with the people around,” she said.

During the celebration, others also called for attention to be paid to the increasing difficulty of finding compromise in today’s politics and how that might impact the 50-year-old bill of rights.

Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice, a former Republican legislator, spoke on a panel about the ongoing struggle between the state Legislature and judicial branch. The conflict stems from allegations directed at the court from Republican lawmakers of bias and misconduct

Rice said a lack of respect for the state constitution’s mandate for separation of powers is a blow to the stability of public institutions.

“I thought how foolish I have been and how short-sighted to assume that our institutions would always endure.”

Rice wasn’t the only speaker with a warning that the state’s current constitution faces threats.

Former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot said he sees political polarization and struggles for power as detrimental to the state’s constitution and democracy.

“It requires universal self-discipline and uninterrupted prioritization of public over private or political interests. Subscribing to the rule of law requires each of us to limit our personal ambition.”

Racicot pointed to a law passed during the last legislative session that expands concealed carry of weapons on college campuses. The law has pitted the state Board of Regents and the state Attorney General in a legal fight over who governs universities. Racicot agrees with a district court ruling that lawmakers overstepped their authority with the law. The case is now in front of the state Supreme Court.

Racicot says he’s seeing self interest drive policy changes even if those changes are deemed constitutional, like the elimination of a public board in charge of nominating judges to vacant benches.

“That’s what we’ve got to fight is the desire everyday to control every aspect of the process.”

Montanans are asked to re-evaluate their support for the state constitution every 20 years - it’ll be on the ballot again in 2030. It takes a simple majority vote by the public to call for a convention. In 1990, 82% of Montanans voted against the first question of a constitutional convention. In 2010, 50% voted against it.

Otherwise, the state Legislature can amend or ask voters to rewrite the document with a supermajority of lawmakers.

Recordings of the 50th anniversary celebration are available through the Montana Public Affairs Network on the state Legislature’s website.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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