State Constitutions vs. The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution defines the structure of the national government and dictates the scope and limitation of its powers. The Constitution is known as “the supreme Law of the Land” and all other laws are measured against it. The application of the articles and amendments of the Constitution comprise constitutional law.

In addition to the United States Constitution, each state has its own constitution and therefore, its own body of constitutional law as well. State constitutions resemble the federal Constitution in that they outline the state government’s structure of legislative, executive and judicial branches as well as contain a bill of rights.

But there are various ways state constitutions differ from the federal Constitution. Often, state constitutions are much longer and more detailed than the federal Constitution. State constitutions focus more on limiting rather than granting power since its general authority has already been established. As a result, the constitution of Alabama is six hundred pages long whereas the federal Constitution can be easily read in one sitting front to back.

The details in state constitutions are not particularly “constitutional” in nature. They often address topics unique to the state. The federal Constitution can only be amended through a lengthy process designed to limit changes to this fundamental document. As a result, it has only been amended seventeen times since the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791.

State constitutions are more open to amendments. Amendments can be proposed by legislature, a constitutional commission or citizens’ petition and can be accepted by referendum.  For example. the constitution of Massachusetts has been amended one hundred and twenty times. The constitution of Georgia has even been replaced altogether as many as ten times.