Photos by: Zane Hamilton
Chief Justice Christine Durham of the Utah Supreme Court spoke about the importance of state constitutions at BYU’s annual Constitution Day lecture last Tuesday.
“Many people speak of the American Constitution,” Durham said, “but they should speak of the American constitutions.”
State constitutions predated the federal Constitution. State constitutions are sub-national and they should be studied together as an interconnected whole, Durham said. By the time of the Philadelphia Convention, the states had already written more than 20 constitutions.
The Massachusetts state constitution is the oldest written constitution still in effect today and was not written by James Madison, but by John Adams.
Justice Durham spoke of the distinct features of the state constitutions.
“State constitutions are instruments of government rather than mere frameworks for government,” Durham said. “The federal government has remained a rather static document relying on judicial rulings to change. The Supreme Court has been described as a continuing constitutional convention. ”
According to Durham, the United States has never held a constitutional convention. There are only 27 amendments to the Constitution. However, the combined states have held 233 conventions and passed more than 6,000 amendments.
State constitutions limit the power of the states — they list things the states cannot do. The federal government may only perform the functions specifically listed in the Constitution. Justice Durham related this to LDS history. The early saints petitioned the president of the United States to stop the persecution by Western States. The President responded, “Your cause is just, but I cannot help you.” The federal government had no authority over what the states did.
“[I want to] expand the usual focus of the American Constitution debate, which includes not just one, but 51 constitutions,” Durham said. “The Constitution is a dynamic, evolving constitution system because of the state constitutions.”
Durham has served on the Utah Supreme Court since 1982 and became chief justice in April 2002. She received her bachelor of arts with honors from Wellesley College and her juris doctorate from Duke University.
Constitution and Citizenship Day was established in 2004 to recognize the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. The lecture is sponsored by the BYU College of Family, Home and Social Sciences and the Wheatley Institution.