Uses of Convention History in State Constitutional Law
30 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2022 Last revised: 15 Nov 2022
Date Written: August 21, 2022
For decades now, scholars have been interested in the reliability of historical evidence surrounding the drafting of the federal Constitution. The intrigues surrounding the publication of records of the federal constitutional convention—the Philadelphia Convention, held in 1787—are nearly worthy of their own Netflix special (though maybe not quite another installation of the National Treasure franchise). As compared with the amount of material available to federal constitutional law scholars and interpreters, the quantity of historical material pertaining to state constitutions is vast. And yet, no comparable literature exists to assess the reliability of those records. This leaves a question: if scholars have criticized courts’ reliance on shaky historical evidence to interpret the federal Constitution, to what extent might the same sorts of concerns plague the records in the states?
Now is an opportune time to consider the production and use of the historical evidence surrounding state constitutions for at least three reasons. First, while much scholarly interest in uses of historical material focuses on originalism as deployed in the Supreme Court, more recent work is starting to engage originalism and uses of history in state and lower federal forums. Second, the Supreme Court’s turn in recent federal constitutional decisions toward “history” and “tradition” may mean more lawyers turn to state constitutions and associated records for evidence of historical understandings of rights and their limits. And lastly, recent progressive losses in the Supreme Court seem likely to reinvigorate interest in pursuing state constitutional causes of action to protect rights not recognized at the federal level, a move that may likewise trigger renewed interest in state constitutional sources.
This Essay begins to examine the records that surrounded the creation of state constitutions, considering their reliability as sources, their emergence as interpretive aids, and their widespread use by judges. It focuses in particular on material from state constitutional conventions: the published journals, debates, and proceedings that purport to chronicle the day-to-day activities of a state constitution’s drafters. Although hardly the most frequent way that state constitutions are changed, state convention evidence can be helpfully viewed through the critical lens that has already been applied to records of the federal Constitutional Convention. In this brief work, I will illustrate some of the problems and possibilities that this material can pose for interpreters of state constitutions, informed by the critiques that scholars have made of convention evidence in the federal context.
Part I begins by examining the extent to which the evidentiary weaknesses identified by federal constitutional scholars apply to material produced in conjunction with state constitutional conventions. Part II traces the history of state-court reliance on convention evidence, examining its emergence as an interpretive aid in the first half of the nineteenth century and its acceptance in an increasing number of judicial decisions. Given the frequency with which courts turn to convention evidence, Part III identifies some puzzles and directions for further research on the uses of historical material to shed light on the meaning of state constitutional provisions.
Keywords: state constitutional law, legal history, state and local government, constitutional interpretation, originalism, history and tradition, legislative history
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