Civic Engagement

Rewriting Virginia's Constitution


 

SUMMARY: Guest speakers A.E. Dick Howard, the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law at the University of Virginia, and retired Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan discuss the 1971 rewriting of Virginia's Constitution.


By Jessica Nickels, editorial assistant

On Thursday, April 8, James Madison University, in partnership with Norfolk State University, hosted “Looking Back, Looking Forward: The 50th anniversary of the 1971 Rewriting of the Virginia Constitution.”

The virtual Madison Vision Series event featured A.E. Dick Howard, the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law at the University of Virginia, and retired Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan, dean of the Appalachian School of Law.

The discussion centered on the 1971 Virginia Constitution and its impact, both at the time of the rewriting and in the five decades since.

In the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Virginia General Assembly created a commission to review the state’s Constitution. Howard, then a 34-year-old law professor at U.Va., was appointed the commission’s executive director.

“The previous Constitution had been adopted in 1902 … and was steeped in racism and white supremacy,” he said. 

Decisions coming out of Washington, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and the “one person, one vote” principle invoked by the Warren court throughout the 1960s further prompted the rewriting. The high court had also struck down Virginia’s poll tax—designed to disenfranchise Black voters in the commonwealth—and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices in many southern states.

In order to “refresh” Virginia’s Constitution, “they put education in the Bill of Rights, they drew from Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” and they made education more accessible for school-aged children around the state, Howard said.

Howard fielded questions from McClanahan, then from JMU President Jonathan R. Alger and NSU President Javaune Adams-Gaston about the longevity of the 1971 revision, the relationship between Virginia’s Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, and how the 50th anniversary of the 1971 rewriting of the Virginia Constitution can be an opportunity for civic engagement and discussion.

JMU student Xaiver Williams and NSU student Maleik Watkins asked questions of Howard, including whether he would make changes to the state Constitution, what limits the Constitution presents and how the commission performed its work.

Audience members were encouraged to submit their questions prior to the beginning of the event or while watching the livestream.

The event concluded with Adams-Gaston’s reminder about the significance of the anniversary.

“Although we’ve seen much progress over the last 50 years," she said, "the fight for equality and justice rages on, both here in Virginia and across our country.”

Back to Top

Published: Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, August 12, 2021

Related Articles