Stop cluttering our state constitutions!

[Slate]

At Slate today, I’ve got a story on Kentucky’s newest constitutional amendment, which enshrines, of all things, the right to hunt. I started digging into this topic because it’s a perfect example of how more and more people are overloading our constitutions with  unnecessary or deeply ideological amendments. To me, at least, that’s not what constitutions are for.

The story’s focus shifted a bit once it became clear how hands on the NRA had been (and once the NRA itself became a more urgent story). Still, I wanted to write here about the state-level pressures behind this new amendment. We know why the NRA wanted the right to hunt — but why did Kentucky legislators like Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo?

Stumbo wouldn’t return my emails or calls, but I heard several interesting theories from statehouse insiders. One was that Stumbo, a Democrat, hoped the amendment would boost his party’s rural legislators in this year’s election. Republicans made their biggest push in decades to take back the Kentucky House, which meant trying to (nonsensically) link their opponents to federal initiatives like Obamacare. But things got uglier still. Robert Damron, another Democrat state rep, told me that one group visited the churches in his district and left fliers on the cars claiming that he supported Obama and abortion. “People would call me and ask about the leaflets,” Damron told me, “and I would say, ‘I’m a Christian—I was in Church on Sunday morning. I wonder where they were?’ But welcome to Republican politics in the South.”

The Democrats ended up holding on to a 55-45 advantage in the House, though no one I talked to thought the right-to-hunt amendment had much to do with this. After all, most voters didn’t care because they didn’t see a threat in the first place. But there’s another (and, to me, more persuasive) theory about why Stumbo wanted the amendment. It centers on Kentucky’s Republican-controlled Senate — and on a little-known piece of legislation called the “21st Century Bill of Rights.”

In 2011, Kentucky’s Senate passed its own proposed constitutional amendment — a list guaranteeing ten new rights, including the right to mine coal, the right to post the Ten Commandments, and the right not to buy healthcare. Senate Republicans knew the bill would never pass the House, but they hoped it would appease the local Tea Party and maybe bolster Senate President David Williams as he ran for governor. One of those new rights turned out to be the right to hunt, and several people told me that Stumbo created his own right-to-hunt bill as a strictly defensive measure. By proposing the amendment, the thinking went, House Democrats could table the 21st Century Bill of Rights without any fear that their election-year opponents (or the NRA) would attack them for being anti-hunting.

That’s just politics, of course, but I’ll revive my original point: aren’t constitutions supposed to be one of the few arenas that remain free of such politics? These documents tend to have messy births, but as they mature they become more foundational, more philosophical. That’s how constitutions have worked for a long time, at least. But that may be changing — which would mean that right-to-hunt amendments are only the silliest example of what’s actually a serious and dispiriting trend.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
This entry was posted in Features, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s