The Constitution of the United States has only six articles and twenty-seven amendments. At over 200 years old, it is one of the oldest constitutions in the world. It governs the world’s sole superpower, a country that is among the largest in the world in terms of both land area and population.
In contrast, Oklahoma has one of the longest constitutions in the world. At the time of its adoption, it was the longest. In its just over 100 year existence, it has been amended over 150 times. Much of the length comes from provisions that are outdated, stricken down, or, quite often, better handled by statute.
The state constitution reflects the biases of its original adopters in 1907. It spends an inordinate amount of time limiting the power of the railroads. The word “railroad” or “railroads” is used a total of 56 times. Some of these regulations aren’t inherently bad, but it’s odd to place the regulations in the constitution rather than in statute, especially given that citizens are much less concerned with abuses by railroad monopolies a hundred years later.
The constitution decrees how railroad companies must have meetings and the manner in which they should trade stock. It also bans railroad companies from operating in this state until they accept the entirety of the constitution. Understandably, corporation commissioners are required to state in their oath of office that they are don’t have a conflict of interest regarding the companies they seek to regulate. However, the constitution only mentions certain types of companies directly. Among them are railroads, street railways, steam boats and telegraph lines.
One of the sections regulating railroads is rather peculiar. It bans the railroads from giving free services to people. However, there are exceptions. These exceptions take up 17 lines on the version from the Oklahoma Department of Libraries. The exceptions include surgeons, physicians, attorneys, religious ministers, certain secretaries for some YMCAs, hospital patients, charity workers, homeless people and inspectors for the post office, customs and immigration enforcement.
There are a few other provisions that come off as quite dated. For instance, the state is allowed to enter into any business activity it wants, except for agriculture. In dividing up college funding, there’s a reference to the “Colored Agricultural and Normal University,” now Langston University. The section that ensures freedom of religion also bans “polygamous or plural marriages.” There is also one section that defines both the flash test and specific gravity test for kerosene.
Numerous provisions of the constitution are no longer in effect. Two articles and 21 sections have been repealed. Other provisions have been struck down by federal courts. For instance, virtually all of Oklahoma’s rules for apportionment for the state legislature have been invalidated by the Supreme Court of the United States. One of the amendments to the constitution attempted to place term limits on Oklahoma’s federal representatives. This was also struck down by the Supreme Court. Another amendment defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Federal courts have struck this down, and many expect that the Supreme Court will uphold those decisions later this year.
Many provisions are arguably better handled by statute. Many regulations for railroads arguably would be better handled through normal laws than through constitutional provisions. Provisions concerning labor laws and alcohol would also be better handled by statutes. For instance, the state’s right to work law, child labor laws and the eight hour workday for certain professions are enshrined into the constitution. There is no reason why these items couldn’t be handled by normal legislation. The state’s regulation of alcohol is more peculiar. Alcohol sales on Sunday or to people under twenty-one isn’t just illegal, it’s unconstitutional.
The number of outdated references, provisions that are no longer in force and overly specific provisions make Oklahoma’s constitution overly long and complicated. A constitution should set out to form the structure of the government and to safeguard the most fundamental rights of citizens. Oklahoma’s constitution goes well beyond this goal, and sets to consider nearly everything under the sun. Also, while one should expect a constitution to be amended at times, it’s completely unnecessary to do so nearly every election. Oklahoma would be better served with a constitution that’s shorter and easier to understand. More trivial matters should be handled at the legislative, not constitutional, level.