The Battle for Separation of Powers in Rhode Island
59 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2006 Last revised: 16 Sep 2015
Date Written: 2004
In 1999 and 2000, the Rhode Island Supreme Court handed down two opinions holding that the doctrine of separation of powers was not part of the state constitution. Rather, said the court, Rhode Island government was "a quintessential system of parliamentary supremacy". The decisions had been prompted by the legislature's assuming increasing control of state regulatory agencies. The principal technique was having agencies controlled by a board or commission whose members - in some instances, a majority - were appointed by the legislature. Good government groups launched a campaign to amend the state constitution to incorporate the doctrine of separation of powers. Many considered this a fool's errand. The state constitution could not be amended without the consent of the legislature, and few believed voters would become aroused over an abstract principle of political science. But that is exactly what happened, and the voters ratified the constitutional amendment at the polls in 2004. The Rhode Island experience is significant because it represents the most extreme rejection of separation of powers in American history. What happened in Rhode Island, why it happened, and how the public reacted tells us much about what separation of powers means, both consequentially and in terms of public belief. This article argues that one of the things the Rhode Island experience tells us is that separation of powers is at the core of American ideology - that, in the eyes of the people, it is not an optional feature of government but as fundamental as the vote or representative government.
Keywords: Constitutional Law, State Constitutions, Separation of Powers
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