MOUNT VERNON — It may be easy to take the Ohio State Constitution for granted, because typically it is only discussed when a ballot issue will be amending it, as in the three pending issues being voted upon this fall. But just because the state constitution does its job quietly now, it doesn’t mean things always ran so smoothly.
To authorize the state to issue bonds to provide compensation to veterans of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts
To create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board to establish and implement standards of care for livestock and poultry
To amend the Constitution to allow for one casino each in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo and distribute to all Ohio counties a tax on the casinos
During his time in the Statehouse when working on new laws, former State Rep. Thom Collier often would take a closer look at Ohio’s legal foundation.
“There are awesome challenges when you’re looking at legislation,” Collier said. “Is it constitutional, is it not constitutional? There are always varying degrees of contention on those issues.”
Although Ohio has been a state since 1803, its current constitution only dates back to 1851, according to a guidebook issued to new Ohio lawmakers. The state’s earlier constitution was much different. One tends to think of the three branches of government — the lawmaking legislative branch, the leading executive branch and the ruling judicial branch — as the natural foundations of government in the United States, as outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
Although a system of checks and balances was instituted on the federal level, there was no law mandating the structure of state constitutions, because the states were more powerful and independent in the pre-Civil War era. Thus when Ohio was invited to join the fledgling nation in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson, Ohio lawmakers established a structure which they themselves would dominate. The legislators were elected from their home districts, but they were the ones who appointed all state and county judges. Likewise, they created the office of governor as a largely ceremonial role, with very few powers.
According to the guidebook, by the late 1840s, state debt, favoritism to corporations and a legislature with almost unstoppable powers led to a massive reform movement, which voted out the old constitution and put a new one in place. The new constitution allowed for a potential replacement every 20 years. Ohio voters tried but failed to pass a new constitution in 1871, and started the process again in 1911. In 1912, however, it was decided to keep the basic constitution and make amendments to adjust it, which is the process that has been followed ever since.
“Obviously, there are always those who would like to throw it out and start from scratch,” Collier said. “Most people don’t realize how comprehensive the constitution is.”
The three state issues on the Nov. 3 ballot proposes to permanently alter the state constitution to allow, in Issue 1, borrowing of funds in order to pay a bonus to veterans; in Issue 2, the creation of a Livestock Care Standards Board; and in Issue 3, for casinos to be built in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. Passage of these amendments makes their provisions official features of Ohio law. If they pass and are entered into the constitution, they can only be repealed by a majority of voters through a new constitutional amendment overruling the old one.
Collier said a perennial challenge to legislators is creating laws that are likely to pass review by the courts.
“The broader the legislation, the more opportunities there are for parts of it to be found unconstitutional,” Collier said, citing as an example the legislature’s efforts in the 1990s to revise the workers’ compensation system.
The court found parts of the large law unconstitutional, which required the legislature to go back and polish every section, sending them through the system one by one to make sure that most would stand even if a problem was detected with another.
Collier said any citizen or group of citizens in the state can initiate a challenge to the constitutionality of a law. Likewise, amendments can be placed on the ballot by any group that collects a sufficient number of supporting signatures within the required time frame. The Ohio House and Senate can also place issues on the state ballot by vote of a specified three-fifths supermajority of both the House and Senate.