A bill of rights enumerates certain individual liberties and protects those liberties from governmental intrusion, unless there is a sufficiently compelling justification for government action. The Georgia Bill of Rights consists of forty paragraphs, which constitute Article I of the Constitution of 1983. Twenty-eight paragraphs enumerate individual rights, nine deal with the origins of government, and three are devoted to “general provisions.”
All of the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution are also protected under the Georgia Bill of Rights. Georgia courts play the role of final arbiter as to the meaning of the Georgia Constitution, however. As a result, many provisions of the Georgia Bill of Rights, as interpreted by the state courts, are more protective of individual liberty than textually similar provisions of the Constitution of the United States. Moreover, the Georgia Constitution also includes some liberties that are simply not mentioned by the federal Constitution. For example, the Georgia Constitution protects “Freedom of Conscience,” the right not to be abused during arrest or imprisonment, and forbids whipping and banishment as punishment for crimes.
Despite being given free rein to propose changes to the bill of rights, the committee to revise Article I of the Constitution of 1983 generally added very little. Among the few revisions made were grammatical changes and the clarification of liberties that were brought forth from previous Georgia constitutions. Some of these rights originated in the first Georgia Constitution of 1777, while others had emerged as late as 1976. Therefore, an understanding of the various liberties currently protected requires a knowledge of the historical circumstances surrounding the adoption of particular constitutional protections.
Between 1777 and 1861, Georgians lived under four constitutions, none of which contained a comprehensive bill of rights. These constitutions did protect a few individual liberties, however, including freedoms of religion and of the press, the right to trial by jury, and the writ of habeas corpus. These provisions were likely protected because the violation of them by the British was a factor leading to the Revolutionary War (1775-83). These liberties are still protected by the Georgia Bill of Rights today.
The state’s first comprehensive bill of rights appeared in the Georgia Constitution of 1861, just after the state had seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. The reasons for the emergence of a bill of rights at this point in history have been much debated. One widely accepted theory states that, during the secession crisis, a written bill of rights served as a demonstrative statement to Georgians that their state had not forsaken the fundamental principles upon which the U.S. government was founded.
This bill of rights, entitled “Declaration of Fundamental Principles,” was written by Thomas R. R. Cobb. These “principles” added a plethora of rights to the state constitution, including all of the rights then provided for by the Constitution of the United States, as well as some original provisions. In addition to the rights enumerated, the Constitution of 1861 explicitly provided for judicial review and admonished that the enumeration of rights “shall not” be construed to deny other inherent rights of citizens.
The 1861 liberties have proven remarkably stable. Georgia has adopted six constitutions since 1861, but the rights protected have been brought forth into the current bill of rights in essentially the same form, although the wording of the provisions has been modernized along the way.
Since 1861, some rights have been added, primarily as a result of changing social conditions. The Constitution of 1865 added a provision banning slavery. The Constitution of 1868, adopted during Reconstruction (1867-76), included Georgia’s version of the federal Equal Protection Clause and added several protections, including the prohibition of whipping as the punishment for a crime. Banishment was added to the list of forbidden punishments in the Constitution of 1877. Few notable changes were made to the Constitution of 1945. In 1976 two provisions were added: first, certain property was exempted from levy and sale; and second, recognition of the progress of women’s rights was demonstrated by a provision that protects separate spousal property.
These historical developments are embodied in the 1983 bill of rights. Most of the enumerated rights have their origins in the Constitution of 1861, but some can be traced as far back as the Constitution of 1777. Others emerged later as a result of the Civil War (1861-65), Reconstruction, and women’s rights. It can be expected that the Georgia Bill of Rights will continue to provide these historical protections, while remaining adaptable to the recognition of new liberties when demanded by social circumstances.