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Capital Report

Scholars: Florida's constitution "easiest" to amend

By Regan McCarthy

Tallahassee, FL – Pick up a copy of the state's constitution and chances are it'll be out-dated. Florida's constitution has a reputation as one that's frequently amended, And Regan McCarthy reports legislators are asking voters to okay seven new changes with the possibility of more on the way.

Florida's state constitution is arguably the easiest of the 50 states' to amend or at least that's what Florida State University law professor Sandy D'Alemberte says.

"It's got to rank among the top five worst states for most amendments to the constitution and there's a reason for that. One is that the Florida constitution provides more methods for amendment than any other constitution."

In fact, there are five separate avenues for amending the state's constitution all of which eventually require acceptance in a referendum vote by 60-percent of the electorate. One method is through the passing of a joint resolution with a three-fifths majority in both the House and the Senate. That's where the seven provisions already headed for the ballot such a an amendment set to limit the Federal health care law, or an amendment prohibiting public funding of abortions, came from.

Florida's charter can also be changed through two commissions that meet on a rotating 10-year schedule. Or by a constitutional convention which has not been convened since the document's overhaul in 1968. The fifth method for amending the document is through a citizens' initiative.

D'Alemberte, who was a legislator during the constitution's make-over and a member of the state's 1978 constitution revision commission, says that's what really sets Florida apart from most states. And it's something he says he supported before but might want to take back now.

"The way it's worked out in practice, what its turned out to be, an instrument of large organizations not just corporations I mean, trial lawyers, the Florida Medical Society and others have used the initiative provision to put what essentially is trash into our constitution."

Most states with a citizen's initiative option don't use the measure to amend the state's constitution, but instead let citizens use the procedure to create law. It's an idea Policy Director of the James Madison Institute, Bob Sanchez, says makes sense. Sanchez says the state constitution has become a catch-all for items that don't really belong.

"A lot of the amendments. The pregnant pig amendment, the gill net amendment, which dictates the size of mesh on fishing nets have come through that process."

But Bob Williams, a law professor at Rutgers University and constitution expert says perhaps what's really wrong is our understanding of what a constitution should be.

"Our sort of general understanding of the decorum of the document is based mainly on the federal constitution. It's short. It hasn't been changed very much. Everybody knows about it. And in a way that might not necessarily be the proper model for thinking about a proper state constitution. So I'm one of those people that thinks if something's important enough to a large enough section of the population that they can convince the majority of those to put it in the constitution maybe it does belong there."

The Federal Constitution can be amended in only three ways none of which is through a citizen's initiative. Williams says state constitutions are intended to rule over a much broader range of subjects than federal constitutions, which, he says, explains why they are sometimes longer and more detailed. Regardless, the fact is, in Florida, frequent amendments aren't likely to go away anytime soon a reality Leon County Elections Supervisor, Ion Sancho, still leaves voters confused.

"I've actually had to settle disputes between husbands and wives, for example, they're read the same amendment and they call me up and say, I think no means this' oh, no, no, yes means that."

Sancho says more amendments also mean longer lines at the polls and thanks to the newly passed elections bill a significant increase in costs when statue requires the entire bill, rather than just a synopsis, be printed on the ballot. The elections bill carries other implication for constitutional amendments, for example the measure now puts an expiration date on signatures used to petition public initiatives.