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MT Constitution's 50th anniversary: Opportunity to reflect on its power


Big Sky Connection
The Montana Constitution was adopted in 1972 and is the second in the state's history. (pabrady63/Adobe Stock)
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of Montana's Constitution, spurring conversation about how the document can be applied in people's lives and the state of democracy. Comments from Jim Nelson, former Montana Supreme Court Justice.


Eric Tegethoff
January 10, 2022

The Montana Constitution was ratified 50 years ago this year. A series of talks in Helena will observe the occasion by discussing the document.


Former Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson is kicking off the series by asking Montanans not what they can do for their Constitution but what their Constitution can do for them.


He said the state's Constitution isn't just a defensive document to be used when someone's rights are violated - it's also a document that can be used to play offense.


"It's offensive in the standpoint that if our courts and our legislators and our executive branch broadly interpret and aggressively apply our Constitution to best protect our lives, liberty and property," said Nelson, "then it becomes a template for good governance."


Nelson said provisions in the Constitution such as the right to a clean and healthful environment could provide a tool for fighting climate change.


The Helena chapter of the League of Women Voters and Lewis and Clark Library are hosting the talks. The first event takes place Wednesday online at 7 pm.


Nelson said the Constitution also states that all elections shall be free and open. However, he said the threat of voter suppression in Montana is real.


"This, I think, probably is one of the most existential dangers to Montana's Constitution and to our democracy at the present time," said Nelson. "And again, Montana's Constitution protects voting rights very strictly and very specifically."


Nelson said the attack on the Capitol in Washington, DC last year and voting restriction bills being introduced and passed across the United States prove the country's democracy is in a precarious state.


"It's important for people to realize that democracy is not a spectator sport," said Nelson. "It has to be nurtured and fought for and supported and protected and defended if we are going to keep our democracy. Democracies die from within, not from without, and that's the threat that we're facing."


Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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