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Hands off

Montana Constitution doesn't need an update



Of all the many issues and candidates before voters in a few short weeks, one can be easily dismissed with a quick "No" vote—the Constitutional Convention Call No. 2, or CC-2. The Montana Constitution is widely held to be one of the best state constitutions ever drafted and has even been used as a model for national constitutions around the world. Why? Because it works, because it puts citizens first, and because it holds guarantees for individual privacy, a clean and healthful environment, and open government that far exceed the U.S. Constitution.

The issue of whether or not to call for a new constitutional convention is not one that was put on the ballot by zealots or those who feel they have not been well-served by the current one. Instead, as yet another testament to the foresight of its drafters, the Montana Constitution itself (Article XIV, Sec. 3 and 4) requires that every 20 years residents must have the opportunity to decide by popular vote whether or not the document upon which our state governance is based should be revised.

To date, as noted by many others, the issue has been "under the radar" in this tumultuous election year. So far there have been no organized efforts to fund campaigns either for or against the measure. But while it may have taken a back seat to the crushing pressures of the economy, the wild antics of the Tea Party and the on-going and fruitless battles between Republicans and Democrats over who governs worse, there is likely not a single issue that will affect every Montanan as much as the question of whether to rewrite our state's guiding document.

Voters who take the time to read the arguments for and against holding a constitutional convention will see in short order that one of the first issues proponents raise is the constitutional guarantee that all Montanans have the right to "a clean and healthful environment." What they fail to do, however, is inform voters of why that provision exists, which ignores the significant and historic lessons that gave birth—and acceptance—to the clause.

You can find the guarantee in Article II, which is the Declaration of Rights. Section 3, titled "Inalienable Rights," lays it out in very plain language and remains a beacon of light and freedom in today's world. "All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life's basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities."

There is no doubt whatsoever that the brutal domination of Montana's newspapers, legislature and government by the Anaconda Company was the driving force behind the clean and healthful environment guarantee. For most of a century, the Anaconda Company did what it wanted in Montana and laws, citizens and politicians be damned if they tried to stand in its way. Those who wish to explore the extent of the travesties visited upon our fair state by this unconscionable corporate behemoth will find good reading in the book Smoke Wars by Donald MacMillan. It is also likely that they will be surprised to see that even attempts by President Teddy Roosevelt to halt Anaconda's massive pollution of the Clark Fork River and Deerlodge Valley were to no avail. Simply put, The Company was more powerful than one of the most popular presidents in American history and continued to destroy the environment, poison cattle, people, air and waters and leave a massive toxic legacy in its wake.

And so it was that, in 1972 when the drafters of the state constitution met, one of their primary goals was to ensure that future generations of Montanans would never again have to grovel beneath the heel of brutal and rapacious corporate masters while their families, lands, air and waters were poisoned. The best way to do that, they agreed, was to make a clean and healthful environment an "inalienable right" for all Montanans.

Has the time come to rewrite or eliminate this guarantee? Hardly. In what may best be described as yet another wave of plunder, multi-national and foreign energy companies are descending upon Montana with one thought in mind—take what they can, pocket the profits, and stick Montanans with whatever legacy their processes leave behind. In the meantime, we get to watch short-sighted politicians of all persuasions kowtowing for a quick buck in spite of the risks or burdens placed on future generations. But for our constitution's guarantee of a clean and healthful environment, we would shortly be reliving the horrors of the past.

Of course the "clean and healthful" provision isn't the only thing those who want to rewrite our constitution might like to change. The guarantee of "individual privacy," for instance, has been held as key to a woman's right to decide what to do with her own body, infuriating the "right to life" faction. And just recently, individual privacy guaranteed those with terminal illnesses may choose to end their suffering and "die with dignity"—angering those who think only their version of god should decide when living with pain and disability become intolerable.

Or how about our "open government" provision that guarantees all Montanans have the right to observe the deliberations of governing bodies and makes all government documents public information unless they clearly affect individual privacy? Why would anyone, in this age of increasing government secrecy, backroom deals and corrupt politicians want to even marginally dilute our existing rights?

What's great about Montana's constitution goes far beyond the few clauses noted above. We Montanans are extremely fortunate to live by its provisions and should be forever grateful to its far-sighted drafters. As for those who seek to rewrite the constitution, our message is short and simple: "Hands off, we like it just the way it is."

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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