By Evelyn Pyburn
One thing about aging – events can become more meaningful and gain greater perspective. I find that is true regarding the Montana Constitution of 1972.
I was a pretty young reporter when the whole Con-Con event unfolded. I interviewed those who ran as delegates and followed the issues as a reporter for the weekly newspaper for which I worked, and then did follow up on the issues that seemed to be the most relevant changes, interviewing experts involved in those issues. I mostly just absorbed what I encountered, which has become more significant in importance as I look back.
I recently read where former Supreme Court Justice James Nelson called the revised state constitution the most “progressive” constitution in the country. It might be that. It would have very good reason to be. In interviewing the Con-Con delegates during the campaign to gain voter approval of the new document, some of the delegates gave a blow by blow account of their experience. I found perplexing some of what I heard about how the process unfolded and what governed it.
It was governed by the League of Women Voters. The whole issue of whether Montana needed to revise its Constitution came primarily from the Left. The League of Women Voters were the leaders of the movement – a group every bit as progressive then as now.
Now I don’t know how you might envision a constitutional convention to be conducted once launched, but I imagined the delegates sitting down with a copy of the Montana Constitution and perhaps a bunch of law books and other legal references within easy access. I imagined that the document would be broken down into segments and different “committees” who would tackle each part, with deep discussions and bantering about of ideas. There would be disputes, of course, to be aired publically, and eventually settled by a consensus of the body as a whole.
But that wouldn’t be quite right. There was little public discussion. And, I was told by the delegates that when they came to the table, placed before each seat was not only a copy of the Montana Constitution but also a “Model Constitution” produced by the League of Cities and Towns. It was that document that set the parameters of discussion, so it shouldn’t be the least surprising that the new Constitution would be “progressive”.
Now I must admit that not many people seemed perplexed by that table arrangement, but it left me in open-mouthed amazement. As young and naïve as I was, even I understood the flagrant bias of it. I knew the process was not as grassroots as everyone was being led to believe. One has to know that the League of Cities and Towns is a very “progressive” organization. The organization is totally dedicated to “improving” the function of government — advocating centralized, top –down controls even while giving lots of lip service to local control.
From what the delegates related to me, there was no corresponding materials provided regarding civil liberties , or what is necessary to secure and protect them, or even of what rights are. While some of the delegates were troubled about the process, others were not and they glowed with great satisfaction about what they had accomplished.
That there was little interest in the process should have been no surprise. Few things have been so totally heralded as the Second Coming as was Montana’s new Constitution. It was a complete whitewash in most of the media. While there was much written about the glory of it all, and much ado about voting for it – there was very little probing into the details. While the weekly publication I worked for sought out knowledgeable people about everything from taxes to water rights, medicine to transportation, hunting to education – it was very limited reporting compared to what one would have expected all of media to have been focused upon.
My full realization of how starved the public was for information, only came when an auxiliary group with which I worked, published a booklet which focused on the proposed Constitution. There had been so little information about it that we were bombarded with requests for copies of it from all over the state. We had to do a second printing. I most vividly remember delivering a box of the second printing to the Baxter Hotel in Bozeman. It was early evening and as I entered the lobby, a small crowd that had been waiting for the delivery, descended upon me. I was astounded. I heard comments all around me from people indicating the many communities who were anxiously awaiting copies of our booklet.
So indeed, Supreme Court Justice James Nelson is probably accurate in describing the Montana Constitution as the most “progressive” in the country, but I don’t know that that is anything to brag about given the antithesis of progressiveness to liberty. One thing’s for sure, another Constitutional Convention would not unfold so indifferently and casually today – so maybe that’s “progress.”