Why the Arizona Constitution Was Considered Radical and Progressive

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating forum at the Arizona Historical Society that delved into the intricacies of the state’s constitution. The panel comprised a history professor (who coincidentally happened to be my first university instructor!), a law professor, and a lawyer. The discussions during the forum left a lasting impression on me, prompting me to distill the essence of what was shared alongside my own reflections.

A Historical Context

At the forum, I listened intently as historian Phillip VanderMeer shed light on the historical context surrounding Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. During this time, state governments were transitioning from a dominant legislature to more balanced branches of government. As Arizona gained statehood, progressive ideas were taking root in the founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments of various states. Arizona’s economy at the turn of the century was heavily influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the laborers within these industries were grappling with their rights.

It was during the constitutional convention that organized labor brought forth a range of innovative ideas. These ideas, such as an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists for labor leaders, and a ban on child labor, found their way into Arizona’s constitution. Additionally, the constitution encompassed broad progressive concepts including initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.

Divided Demographics

Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer in Arizona, provided valuable insights into the actual debates and influences that shaped the constitutional convention of 1910. He highlighted the unique demographic division in Arizona at the time. While the territorial legislature primarily comprised Democrats, the territorial governor, appointed by the President of the U.S., was typically Republican. In neighboring New Mexico, the opposite scenario unfolded, with a predominantly Republican population. To maintain balance, both states were admitted to the Union around the same time.

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Eckstein underscored the progressiveness of Arizona’s constitution compared to that of its sister state and contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He pointed out several key provisions in Arizona’s constitution that were notably absent in New Mexico’s constitution. Remarkably, these provisions were already in effect when both states joined the Union in 1912. They included the initiative process, popular referendum, two-year terms for elected officials, advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate, direct primaries, public campaign contribution provisions, state anti-trust laws, and a progressive income tax.

Ahead of Its Time

Many of these provisions were at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was already discussing campaign finance, the direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax, even before the federal government made significant headway on these issues. Notably, Arizona granted women suffrage in 1912, preceding the passing of the 19th Amendment, and implemented prohibition in 1914, a full five years before the 18th Amendment.

The Arizona constitution embodied the ideals of progressivism, particularly the notion that the government should be accountable to the public. The combination of two-year terms for elected officials and the ability to recall them created a powerful mechanism to ensure lawmakers remained in check. Additionally, Arizona’s executive branch held limited power, as the governor was just one among many elected officials and possessed relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.

A Neglected Legacy

Unfortunately, some Arizonans today seem to support more restrictive legislation proposed in the legislature. However, the actual problem lies in the fact that the constitution is no longer acknowledged for its fundamental purpose – to hold government accountable to the public. Lawmakers are no longer answerable to the people, and the three branches of government fail to employ checks and balances effectively. Regrettably, one of the main tenets of the constitution – to ensure governmental accountability – is no longer being fulfilled. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as rigorously as they should be, even in light of recent events like the recall of Russell Pearce.

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In a world where constitutions can sometimes be overlooked or undervalued, it is crucial to recognize the significance of Arizona’s constitution in championing progressive ideals and safeguarding public interests.

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