Poor Judge Bill McLeod is out of a job because he didn’t know the Texas Constitution. He had just been elected a Harris County court-of-law judge in the last election, and immediately planned to run for the state Supreme Court. He hired a campaign finance director, announced his candidacy online and was listed in the Harris County Democratic literature as a candidate. Unfortunately, there is an obscure part of the Texas Constitution that states, if anyone holding a judicial post seeks another judgeship, that person is automatically tossed from the current job. “This is the Texas constitution,” he said, pleading his case before the Harris County Commissioners Court. “It’s got 496 amendments. It’s over 87,000 words. It’s the second-largest state constitution in our Union, and I’m sorry I didn’t have it down.”
McLeod’s plea didn’t work, but he has a point. Today we operate under the seventh version of our constitution. It does contain 87,000 words. The average state document has 26,701 words. One sentence in the Texas constitution rambles on for 756 words, and several are almost 300 words in length. We might contrast this with Massachusetts, which is still using its original constitution approved in 1790, with only 116 changes. Alabama’s goes on for 174,000 words. As of 2015 (the 84th Legislature), the Texas Legislature has proposed a total of 673 amendments. Of these, 491 have been adopted, the rest have been defeated by Texas voters. But we don’t have the second longest constitution. That honor belongs to California. Still, ours is one of the oldest still in effect (1876), which puts us far behind Massachusetts.
In the Republic of Texas’ constitution, presidential terms were established at three years and they could not succeed themselves. The constitution also protected the right to own slaves and prohibited “Indians” and “Africans” from living freely in the country and from becoming Texan citizens. The head of a family was entitled to one league and labor of land. Every man who was at least 17 was entitled to one third of a league of land. Many Texans believe that the Lone Star State has a constitutional right to secede from the U.S. whenever it feels like it. This is a myth. However, if you want to hold public office in Texas, you have to believe in God. No matter if you’re the governor or the town dog catcher — if you were elected, in the words of the constitution, you must “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” Another little-known fact: In Texas, credit card companies cannot garnish your wages to collect on a bad debt.
We discussed this back in 2003, but it’s worth mentioning again, particularly for those newcomers who are demanding their league of land. Today’s document deals with such matters as where the governor shall live (in whatever town the Legislature is then meeting) and gives him or her use of the Governor’s Mansion, fixtures and furniture. Among the guv’s powers listed is the authority to call out the militia to repel invasions. Alas, in 1999 the governor lost a key command that goes with the job: ordering out the militia to suppress Indian raids. That’s right, 1999. Then there are the mineral rights under land granted to “John McCormick on or about July 24, 1824.” Our constitution officially states that “The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas… is hereby made, and constituted a Branch of the University of Texas.” Hook ‘Em. In 1993 the Legislature took up the constitutional question of topless bars. The matter was part of a plan to prohibit youngsters from working in a sexually oriented business if said business is harmful to youths. In the original version of the bill, the minimum age was set at 17. But wait, somehow that upset the state penal code, which uses 18, not 17, as the minimum age. So, for the bill to be effective, the constitution had to be changed.
The Texas Constitution sets limits, and if our state government wants to change those limits it has to change the constitution. And the only way that can be done is by a vote — an approving vote — of the people. So on many an election day we are voting on minute items we really don’t care about. But consider the alternative. The next time you hear someone, usually a lawmaker, grandly state that the entire Texas Constitution needs to be junked and replaced with “a general outline,” watch out. Under that “general outline,” pretty soon the legislators will meet annually, move to Austin, raise their salaries and become full-time, professional lawmakers so they can write more laws. Granted, creating a hospital district in Precinct 4 of Comanche County may well be micro-management, but it’s not bad — not so long as Texas is the micro and we’re the management.
In 1974 a full-fledged constitutional convention was held at the capitol with the House and Senate meeting as one body. It was chaired by the House Speaker, Price Daniel, Jr., a young reformer whose arch enemy was the dean of the Senate, Sen. Bill Moore from Bryan, known as the Bull of the Brazos. The two men tangled at every turn with Moore never trying to hide his disgust for reforms and reformers. Each day after arguing on the House floor, several adversaries would get together in one senator’s office to have a drink and discuss the day’s events. I was sitting there late one afternoon when Moore came thundering in, plunked himself down in a chair, and declared, “I keep telling these youngsters that honesty is no substitute for experience!” I always thought that expression should be carved in the capitol rotunda. Years later Moore was defeated by a young reformer and the old senator died peacefully. Price Daniel, Jr. was fatally shot by his wife. She beat the rap. As for the effort to write a new constitution, it died, too.
Ashby is amended at email@example.com