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Notes on the Vermont Constitution

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This document contains my personal notes about certain portions of the Vermont Constitution.

The full Vermont Constitution is also available online. The Vermont Constitution Explained Page may be of some interest as well.

Contact the Webmaster if you have different interpretations of the text I touch upon. I may include a "dissenting opinion" section in the future.

These notes were written by the Webmaster, and you can view his credentials.


Chapter I, Article 1 - All persons born free; their natural rights; slavery prohibited

The Vermont Constitution, first written in 1777, was the first to abolish slavery. Though it never mentions blacks (or Negroes, for that matter), and the Article is general enough to mean that no citizen in Vermont shall be a slave to anyone else without their consent, whether born here or not (note the curious exception, though, for those under the age of 21), it is clear that Article 1 is meant to abolish the specific slave trade of the time.

Vermont's history is sprinkled with anti-slavery groups, events, and individuals. It is well-known for being one of the last stops in the Underground Railroad (see the Underground Railroad Project for more info). That is not to say, however, that Vermont was or is a state without prejudice.

The Vermont Colonization Society was formed to aid in the effort to create a nation in Africa for freed slaves, and to bring civilization to that continent. That nation, now Liberia, was partly colonized by 11,000 or so ex-slaves sent overseas from Vermont. It was one of the stated goals of the VCS to send all blacks back to Africa. Whether this goal was well-intentioned or racist is hard to say - sensibilities were much different in the early 1800's. The VCS clashed with the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society, whose goal was the elimination of slavery and the incorporation of blacks into society, rather than their removal.

Go to this point in the Vermont Constitution.


Chapter I, Article 3 - Freedom in religion; right and duty of religious worship

This article is in curious contrast to that of the United States Constitution's 1st Amendment or even that of, say, the Alaskan Constitution (Article 1, section 4, which simply states "No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). If nothing else, it is curious in its length. But even more curious is its admonition to all Christians that the Sabbath ought be observed, and church attended. The inclusion of so much detail would seem to indicate that the authors were attempting to ensure that prior abuses be specifically prohibited (such as being compelled to attend services, help pay a minister, or be denied a civil right on the basis of religion). The inclusion of the duties of a Christian would seem to indicate a compromise of some kind on the verbiage, perhaps to placate some religious bloc. Unfortunately, since this copy of the Constitution has been "cleaned up," it is hard to tell if this article has ever been changed or replaced, though the language suggests that it may have come from the original document.

Go to this point in the Vermont Constitution.


Chapter I, Article 7 - Government for the people; they may change it

The "common benefit clause" is one of the ways that gay couples who wish to marry argue that bans on same-sex marriages should not be prohibited by Vermont. The argument is that marriage is a common benefit which may not be afforded one type of individual or family over others. The case went before the Vermont Supreme Court in November 1998 and was decided in December 1999 (yes, more than a year later).

The Vermont Supreme Court's decision is regarded as somewhat of a victory for both the homosexual community and by groups opposing gay marriage. The decision states that homosexual couples must be afforded the same rights and benefits as married couples, though it did not require that the existing marriage statutes be simply expanded to include same-sex marriage. Instead, it gave the Legislature the opportunity to decide how to deal with the details. There are basically two choices: either include gay couples in the existing marriage statutes, or create a class of union for same-sex couples (and, perhaps, heterosexual couples not wishing to marry) which affords them all the state protections that marriage does. It is unclear of such a partnership would have the same rights, benefits, and obligations as marriage at the federal level.

This decision is unappealable, since it relies on rights established in the Vermont Constitution, and not the U.S. Constitution.

In January, 2000, the Legislature opened with the Baker case first on the list of issues to deal with. After several well-attended meetings to hear public sentiment, which was varied and advocating all possible decisions, the committee, on February 10, 2000, decided on an 8-3 vote to recommend that the full legislature pass a bill in support of domestic partnership over same-sex marriage. After many close votes and packed public hearings, the Vermont House passed a bill granting the right to Civil Union for same sex couples. The Vermont Senate made several small changes to the bill, which were accepted by the House, and on April 27, 2000, the governor signed the bill into law. The first civil union licenses were issued with much fanfare on July 1, 2000.

An archive of news stories concerning Civil Unions is available on this site.

The votes of the Representatives and Senators on the civil unions issue played a prominent role in the elections of 2000, with several groups concentrating political power to defeat Republicans and Democrats who supported the measure. Many Vermont politicians lamented the outside influence that brought negative campaign materials to some races for the first time.

Go to this point in the Vermont Constitution.


Chapter II, Section 56 - Oaths of allegiance and office

Recent speculation about the legitimacy of the oaths of office of judges and other officers in Vermont, and hence the Constitutionality of their holding office, recently prompted me to contact the Vermont Secretary of State for clarification. This Section, as well as Article 6, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, require oaths of office. The Secretary redirected my inquiry to the State Archivist who said, to paraphrase:

Judges and other officers take oaths as required by the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions. Neither document requires the taking of the oaths to be recorded and filed. Traditionally, however, they were noted and filed in the Archives in the Secretary of State's office. For some recent years, there is no record of the oaths in the Archives. It is not known if that meant that the oaths were not recorded or if recorded oaths were misdirected and are in storage elsewhere. Regardless, oaths were administered, and to avoid confusion in the future, specific processes were put into place to ensure the oaths are recorded and stored in the Archives.

Go to this point in the Vermont Constitution.


Chapter II, Section 64 - Punishment at hard labor

Interestingly, the Vermont Constitution mentions the death penalty several times (here, the term is obfuscated with "sanguinary punishment"). In perusing the Vermont Code, I've only found one mention of the death penalty - in Title 13, Chapter 75, section 3401; for treason. If I find any other references, I will note them here - otherwise, Vermont is not a death penalty state. Title 13, Chapter 221 also has details about how and where an execution is to be carried out. The method is electrocution. Interesting, if chilling, reading.

It is also interesting to note that in Vermont's treason statutes, it is a crime not to report treasonous activity, punishable with five to ten years in prison and/or a $2000 fine; upon notification of such activity, the accused is to be taken under arrest without warrant, and taken immediately to a judge to answer the charges.


Chapter II, Section 68 - Laws to encourage virtue and discourage vice; schools; religious activities

This article was, in 1997, used by the Vermont Supreme Court to effectively destroy Vermont's existing property tax system. In a suit brought on the behalf of a child in a property-tax poor town, the Court ruled that all Vermont children have a right to an education, and that that education must be equal across all towns. I don't think anyone can argue that equal money necessarily means equal education, but it an easy yardstick, and the Justices essentially said that the state must come up with a way to ensure that all per-student spending measures up to this imperfect yardstick. The result is that the legislature has enacted a statewide property tax.

In this plan, the state will tax all property all towns at the same rate to pay for schools. Towns may assess additional taxes to pay for municipal services. Towns may also assess additional taxes to pay for "extra" schooling, but if they do so, some portion of the additional tax must be put into the statewide pool. For example, if Williston wants to spend an extra $1000 per student, the tax must be raised to effectively raise $1250 per student - the extra $250 goes to the state for redistribution (the figures are for illustration only).

Some property-rich towns, where tax rates of 35 cents are not unheard of, are not satisfied with the proposed $1.10 rate. Obviously, taxes in these towns will be rising, and, in some cases, the amount per student will be falling. But in poor towns where rates where very high, and per pupil spending very low, the deal doesn't sound so bad.

Obviously, there is a lot of mixed opinion - not all residents of rich towns are opposed to a state-wide property tax, and not all residents of poor towns support it. But something had to be done. The first reason is that the Court has essentially said that not to do so is unconstitutional. The second is that it is morally right.

The legislature had a few choices. They could do nothing and have the Court dictate a plan; they could come up with a plan; or they could change the Constitution. The first choice is hardly desirable to any party - the Court is loathe to become a legislative body, and the populace would not likely be well served if they, with no constituency to be accountable to, did so. The third is also not desirable, as the Constitution is the basis of our state law, and not to be tampered with lightly. The second choice, which is the one taken with Act 60, is the only reasonable course.

There are still a lot of issues to work out. How will the taxes be paid? How will banks and mortgage companies handle escrow accounts? How many towns will try to raise extra per pupil funds? Which towns will defy the law and face sanctions, and what could those sanctions be? When will the first challenge to the Court's ruling and the legislature's law come?

Go to this point in the Vermont Constitution.



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