This year marks the 70th anniversary of our state constitution. Although some say 70 is the new 50, our state constitution has proved to be relatively stable and to have withstood the test of time. State constitutions are low-visibility, and often amended or even replaced. Ours has been a work in progress since the often-criticized 1776 constitution, through the 1844 major revision, the 28 changes adopted in 1875, and the well-known 1947 Constitutional Convention’s modern, streamlined constitution. The 1966 Constitutional Convention revised the electoral provisions to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” decisions.
Our state constitution, although significantly shorter than many others, is significantly different from the federal Constitution. Its major function, in addition to rights protections, is to limit state governmental power, whereas the federal Constitution primarily enumerates federal governmental power. Even though our state constitution is relatively difficult to amend, and is not amended at the rate of many other state constitutions, it is significantly more malleable than the federal Constitution. It is therefore possible to respond to lessons learned or evolving needs. Some amendments are not particularly consequential, while others make significant adjustments in the structure of our state government, or the catalog of rights that protect us.
The 1947 constitution was adopted after very substantial efforts during the 1940s, and even a draft constitution that failed at the polls in 1944. The constitution was adopted in a period of bipartisan, post-war optimism, by a convention of 81 delegates, eight of whom were women and one of whom was African-American. The new constitution contained a women’s rights provision and an anti-segregation clause, together with a constitutional right to collective bargaining. It also established arguably the nation’s strongest governor and one of the top judicial branches in the United States. The New Jersey judiciary played a central role in the rise of “The New Judicial Federalism,” the now-familiar phenomenon of state courts interpreting their state constitutions to provide more protection than under the federal Constitution. In areas like school finance, capital punishment (before repeal), abortion, exclusionary zoning, and free speech on private property, people in New Jersey have had more rights than are available under the national constitution.
New Jersey has largely avoided the rush we observe in many other states to utilize the state constitution as a “tool of lawmaking,” entrenching in the state constitution matters that could be left to ordinary lawmaking. While matters such as minimum wage were deemed important enough by the Legislature (bypassing a gubernatorial veto) and the voters to be constitutionalized, our constitution is still relatively free of “policy matters.”
Our state constitutional development since 1947 is a matter about which we are justifiably proud. We should work toward preserving it.