On April 14, 2021

Legislative update: Amending the constitution and other bills

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

The Vermont Constitution is a living document and, as such, is allowed to be amended. However, the authors of our Constitution in 1777 did not make it an easy document to amend. It is a multi-year process, requiring review and approval in two consecutive legislative biennia (in this case 2019-20 and 2021-22) and a vote by Vermonters at the end (in this case November 2022). Vermont’s original Constitution was written in Windsor at the Old Constitution House, which was the capital of the early Vermont Republic. It was first amended in 1786. Our current Constitution was adopted in 1793 after Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791. In 1870 it was amended to allow for proposed changes to be ratified by the Vermont voters. Since then Vermonters have ratified 28 of the 30 amendments presented to them. Before 1974, constitutional amendments could only be proposed every 10 years. Now the Legislature is able to consider amendments every four years. Our constitution was most recently amended in 2010 to allow 17-year-olds who would be 18 by the time of the general election in November, to vote in the primary.

On Friday, April 9, the Vermont Senate voted to send two proposals of amendment to the voters for the General Election in 2022. I believe these proposals clarify the intent of the Constitution and affirm Vermont’s history and values.

Proposition 2, clarifies the state’s prohibition on slavery found in Article 1 of Chapter 1. Despite the historic pride we feel in Vermont being the first state in the Union to prohibit slavery, many have felt Article 1 wordy and equivocal about whether or not it allowed for slavery of persons under 21. If this amendment passes, the article will now clarify that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Some Vermonters might say that because the nation outlawed slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, this is not important to clarify. But for many, the old, qualified language is long overdue for replacement with a clear, ringing prohibition. Sadly, we still face aspects of these issues in sex trafficking, migrant labor and work in prisons.

Proposal 5 amends Chapter 1 by creating Article 22. It reads: “That an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course (as protected by this Constitution) and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

This change would give affirmative constitutional protection to what is current practice in Vermont. It is the same standard of review the U.S. Supreme Court used in the Roe v. Wade decision. It will protect our civil rights at a most personal level. It will affirm the right to abortion as it currently exists in our state – and will ensure reproductive liberty for family planning, contraception, and deeply personal decisions women and men make about their lives.

With changes in the membership of the U.S. Supreme Court, there is concern that it may move to weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade. This uncertainty has prompted the Legislature to move not only to affirm 50 years of protection Vermonters rely on, but also to recognize how much Vermonters value the liberty to make our own personal health decisions.

Alison Clarkson is a state senator for Windsor-5. She can be reached at: aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or at 457-4627. To watch Legislative committee’s in action, and to get more information on the Vermont Legislature, the bills which are being debated now, and those which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website: legislature.vermont.gov.

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