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The Constitution of the State of North Carolina governs the structure and function of the state government of North Carolina, United States; it is the highest legal document for the state and subjugates North Carolina law. All US state constitutions are subject to federal judicial review; any provision can be nullified if it, in the view of a majority of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, as constituted from time to time, conflicts with the US Constitution or any federal law pursuant to the Constitution, even if the identical language was previously upheld as valid by the court.
The first North Carolina Constitution was created in 1776 after the American Declaration of Independence. Since the first state constitution, there have been two major revisions and many amendments. The current form was ratified in 1971 and has 14 articles.
Through its history, North Carolina has had three Constitutions: the Constitution of 1776, the Constitution of 1868, and the Constitution of 1971.
The Fifth Provincial Congress ratified the first constitution in December 1776. This draft was not submitted to a vote of the people, but was accompanied by a Declaration of Rights. Although the constitution affirmed the separation of power between the three branches of government, the General Assembly held the true power. Until 1836, the General Assembly members were the only state officials who were elected by the people. The General Assembly picked Judges, the Governor and the members in the Council of State. Judges had life terms and governors had a one-year term. The Governor had little power and in many cases needed the consent of the Council of State to exercise the power that the office did hold. The Governor was also held to strict term limits; a person could only hold the office three terms in every six years. The constitution established a judicial branch, but did not well define this branch's structure. The constitution also lacked a system of local government. Universal suffrage was not an element of this constitution. Only landowners could vote for Senators until 1857. To hold state office required land ownership until 1868.
Dissatisfied with the central role of the General Assembly, a state constitutional convention was called in 1835. Out of the convention came many amendments. Among those changes was fixing the membership of the Senate and House at their present levels, 50 and 120. Also, the office of Governor became popularly elected. The convention’s proposed changes were adopted by vote of the people on November 9, 1835.
The Convention of 1861–62 was called to revise the constitution to remove North Carolina from the United States. The procedure used to amend the constitution did not need vote of the people, a procedure that was active until removed in 1971.
In 1865, Governor Holden called for a Conference to write a new Constitution; it was rejected by a popular vote. Two years later, they reconvened. The new Constitution gave more power to the people and to the governor.
From 1869 through 1968, there were submitted to the voters of North Carolina a total of 97 propositions for amending the Constitution of the State. All but one of these proposals originated in the General Assembly. Of those 97 amendment proposals, 69 were ratified by the voters and 28 were rejected by them. Due to the many amendments, many provisions in the constitution became antiquated, obsolete and ambiguous. Simply, the document had become difficult to read and interpret. By 1971, there were 200 state agencies.
The draft that later became the Constitution of 1971 began with a study into needed changes by the North Carolina State Bar in 1967. The study outlined a vastly improved and easily-ratifiable document. The draft constitution logically organized topics and omitted obviously unconstitutional sections. The language and syntax was also updated and standardized. The study separated from the main document several amendments that it felt were necessary, but were potentially controversial. The main document passed the General Assembly in 1969 with only one negative vote in seven roll-call votes. On November 3, 1970, the proposed Constitution of 1971 was approved by a vote of 393,759 to 251,132.
Since the Constitution of 1971, there have been over twenty amendments. The majority of these amendments extends the rights of citizens and extends the government the ability to issue bond. The following are significant amendments made since the 1971 constitution:
Ratified in 1789, the current North Carolina Constitution contains a Preamble and 14 articles. Each of the articles covers a different area, with the last article including all miscellaneous topics. Each article is further divided into sections. This constitution incorporates amendments into the document, unlike the United States Constitution which only appends amendments.
We, the people of the State of North Carolina, grateful to Almighty God, the Sovereign Ruler of Nations, for the preservation of the American Union and the existence of our civil, political and religious liberties, and acknowledging our dependence upon Him for the continuance of those blessings to us and our posterity, do, for the more certain security thereof and for the better government of this State, ordain and establish this Constitution.
Each of the 37 sections of Article I outline a separate recognized right. Many of the sections give more depth to the rights covered by the Bill of Rights. The state constitution also secures additional rights, for example the right to a public education and to open courts. Also of note, this section specifically denies the state the ability to secede from the United States and declares that each citizen of this State owes paramount allegiance to the Constitution and government of the United States. Section 37, added in 1995, is the newest addition to this article. This section declares the rights of victims of crime.
Article II declares that all legislative powers in North Carolina are given to the General Assembly. The General Assembly consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives, with 50 and 120 members, respectively. Guidelines for the formation of voting districts and qualification for office are also covered. Each house has a term of two years. This article also gives the governor the power to veto legislation in some circumstances. Veto power was denied the governor until 1996 when the constitution was amended. North Carolina was the last state to extend this power to its governor.
The governor is vested with all executive authority in Article III. The duties of the governor are defined as is the process of succession, should the governor die or become incapacitated. Holders of the governor office are limited to two consecutive terms. The Council of State, a cabinet-like body, is filled with eight popularly elected officials, in addition to the governor and lieutenant governor. This article also defines and mandates a balanced budget.
Article IV defines the make-up the judicial branch of the state and prohibits the legislature from inhibiting its function. Similar to the federal government, the power to impeach state officials and judges is given to the state House of Representatives. The Senate can remove a person from office with a 2/3 majority vote after an impeachment. This article also deals with the necessary qualifications of a judge and confers the power of judicial review with the state’s Supreme Court.
Article VI provides every person who is at least 18 years, an American Citizen, and living within North Carolina the right to vote. This right is denied to felons and people illiterate in English. This article also sets the eligibility to hold office. To hold an elected state office a person cannot fall in any of the following categories:
Article VII gives the general assembly the power to define the boundaries of governmental subdivisions (counties, towns, cities). It limits the distance of newly incorporated town or cities from established cities based on the established city's population. The office of sheriff is provided for each county.
Article VIII defines corporations. It also gives the General Assembly the right to create and regulate corporations.
Article IX makes public education compulsory for all able-bodied children, unless educated by other means. The North Carolina State Board of Education is defined here and given the power to regulate all free public education in the state. This article demands that the General Assembly establish a system of higher education and states that higher education should be free, as far as practicable.
Article X prevents the forced sale of a person's primary residence to pay for a debt, unless the house was specifically used as collateral for a loan. Females are also able to maintain full ownership of all property they own when they marry, under this article. Also, life insurance policies that are paid to a spouse or child are exempt from claims of debt from the estate of the deceased.
Article XI describes the only punishment methods to be used by the state. It specifically only allows the death penalty in cases of murder, arson, burglary, and rape. This article gives the responsibility of the public welfare to the General Assembly.
This short article states: The Governor shall be Commander in Chief of the military forces of the State and may call out those forces to execute the law, suppress riots and insurrections, and repel invasion.
Article XIII describes the two ways the constitution may be amended: by popular convention or through legislation. Legislation is the most common way to amend the constitution. The last time the constitution was amended by convention was in 1875. In a legislative action, an amendment must pass by three-fifths in both houses of the General Assembly and also obtain a majority of a popular vote.
The final article of the constitution covers topics not under other articles. Topics of sections in this article include:
As per the Federal Supremacy Clause, all Federal law and the Constitution of the United States overrule the North Carolina Constitution. There are several provisions in the current North Carolina Constitution that may conflict with federal law and/or the US Constitution.
At least two provisions, carried over from the 1868 Constitution, are not enforced either because they are known to be void or would almost certainly be struck down in court.
In addition, federal and state court decisions have narrowed the scope of at least one section of the constitution. Article 2, sections 3 & 5, sub-section 2 state that counties must not be divided when drawing state legislative districts. This provision is known as the "Whole County Provision." However, in 1981, the federal Justice Department ruled that this provision was inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act. The state thus ignored the Whole County Provision until 2002. That year, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution's equal protection clause presumed single-member districts and was thus a limitation on the Whole County Provision. It can also be argued that the "one person, one vote" rule from Reynolds v. Sims also limits this provision.
Section 2 of Article 11 ("Death Punishment") limits executions to "...murder, arson, burglary, and rape[.]". Per Kennedy v. Louisiana the last 3 are inapplicable.
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