CC BY Image courtesy of University of Virginia Law Library

Virginia's constitution turns 50

May 18, 2021


July 1 is the 50th anniversary of Virginia’s constitution. A.E. Dick Howard, R’54, led the commission that wrote it and the effort to persuade voters to adopt it.
Interview by Matthew Dewald

Why did Virginia need a new constitution when you began work on the 1971 version?
The existing constitution, dating from 1902, was tainted by a drive to enshrine white supremacy. It used such devices as the poll tax and complicated registration procedures to disenfranchise the vast majority of black voters. Its drafters accomplished their aim with grim efficiency.

The 1902 constitution was also long and cumbersome. Many of its provisions belonged in the statute books.

Lastly, by 1968, when the commission got underway, court decisions and national legislation required change. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In 1966, the court struck down the poll tax. Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All in all, Virginia simply could not continue with the 1902 constitution.

What guided you and the commission as you developed a new constitution?
First, we realized that we were working on a constitution, not writing laws, so we deleted detail best left to the statute books. We also understood that a constitution is the charter that nurtures self-government by a free people. We sought to place Virginia’s destiny in the hands of its people.

Was the adoption vote a tough fight?
We brought leaders of every political persuasion on board — Democrats, Republicans, and independents. We created local campaign committees, made speakers available for meetings, and paid for advertising.

My principal concern was misinformation. Some critics tried to paint the new constitution as written by people outside of Virginia. Others claimed it would impose school busing, then a highly charged issue.

Ultimately, 72% of Virginians at the polls voted yes.

Did your experiences at Richmond help prepare you to lead the commission and then the referendum campaign?
I firmly believe that any skills or insights that I brought to the process were nurtured by my undergraduate professors. Ralph McDanel helped me understand the place of our country’s history in measuring today’s challenges. Spencer Albright taught me to appreciate how government works and what the political process is all about. I would like to think that they and their dedicated colleagues would see their handprints all over the revision and ratification process.

Given the opportunity to lead another revision of the constitution, where would you start?
I would ask a number of questions. Virginia’s constitution makes it too difficult for former felons to have their right to vote restored. A felon who has paid his or her debt to society should be restored to full citizenship.

There are a number of possible questions. Partisan gerrymandering is out of tune with democratic government. The new bipartisan commission will begin to address that problem, but will further reform be needed? We shall see.

Invoking Dillon’s rule, Virginia courts strictly construe the powers of local government. Is it time to consign Dillon’s rule to the dustbin of history?

Virginia is the only state that forbids the governor to run for reelection. Is it time to allow the people to decide whether the incumbent should have a second term?

I am sure that any informed citizen would think of other issues. I would be guided by the admonition of George Mason that free government depends on a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”