Mississippi still operates under a constitution adopted more than 125 years ago. Unlike the nineteenth century, when Mississippians preferred holistic political reform at almost generational intervals, citizens and their elected representatives subsequently have opted for piecemeal change. Like many states, Mississippi has come to prefer amendments as the primary agents of constitutional change. Approximately 150 amendments have come before the electorate, and about 80 percent have been approved. More than 60 amendments have become law in the past third of a century alone.
A few patterns of change have emerged. The dynamic generally involves repeal rather than regeneration, as voters have used amendments to correct the errors of the past rather than to innovate. Several amendments, for example, have redressed Mississippi’s legacy of racism. The framers of the 1890 constitution had intended the document to restore white supremacy, and it did so for nearly three-quarters of a century. Since the 1960s, however, voters have repealed key impediments to the full participation by blacks in the public life of the state. Literacy tests and poll taxes fell by the wayside in 1975, followed by segregated schools in 1978 and mixed-race marriages nine years later. These changes came years and sometimes decades after Congress or the US Supreme Court had already invalidated these practices; thus, the amendments merely amounted to housekeeping. Another set of amendments repealed an array of restrictions on corporations, mainly railroads, in keeping with ongoing impulses to create a more favorable climate for economic growth and industry. A third group of measures has removed outdated provisions, such as one providing pensions for widows of Confederate veterans. Despite these efforts, however, Mississippi’s constitution still contains many archaic provisions.
A few amendments have introduced new practices or institutions, particularly regarding the operations of the judicial branch. Dissatisfied with having the governor responsible for appointing judges, voters in the early twentieth century approved the election of the trial and appellate bench, and in 1995 the state moved to nonpartisan campaigns and ballots. In 1979 the electorate approved the creation of the Commission on Judicial Performance, now an active and well-respected entity that investigates charges of misconduct against sitting judges.
Some Mississippians, however, continue to argue that a comprehensive overhaul would be preferable to incremental constitutional reform. State officials, citizens, and outside observers have at various times called for constitutional conventions, and in the 1980s Gov. William Allain appointed a special study commission to consider wholesale revision. The group prepared and circulated a draft of a proposed new constitution designed to cure the inadequacies of the current document. Included in this streamlined version (thirteen articles and fifty-five sections) were new clauses on equal protection, civil rights, and an initiative procedure. None of these more drastic efforts has yet succeeded, but modernization of the 1890 constitution, whether piece by piece or wholesale, will certainly continue.
- Barbara Carpenter, ed., Understanding Mississippi’s Constitutions (1989)
- George Etheridge, Mississippi Constitutions (1927)
- Mississippi Law Journal (April 1986)
- John W. Winkle III, The Mississippi State Constitution: A Reference Guide (1993)