State constitutions are best understood with reference to their historical roots. A review of the history of Georgia’s ten constitutions provides a synopsis of the political, economic, and social history of the state. Georgia’s constitutional history also illustrates the various methods by which a constitution may be written or revised. Georgia has used three different methods of constitutional revision: seven were revised by constitutional conventions, two by constitutional commissions, and one by the office of legislative counsel of the Georgia General Assembly.
The Constitution of 1777
Georgia’s first attempt at constitutional government was initiated in April 1776 by the Provincial Congress called by the Georgia Trustees in response to a series of mass meetings held throughout the colony. This document provided a framework for the transition from colony to state. Soon after Georgia accepted the Declaration of Independence, its first state constitutional convention was organized. Completed in February 1777 and executed without having been submitted to voters for ratification, this constitution remained in effect for twelve years. It vested most governmental authority in a state legislative body, incorporated the separation of powers doctrine, and included a number of basic rights, such as the free exercise of religion, freedom of the press, and trial by jury.
The Constitution of 1789
On January 2, 1788, Georgia became the fourth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. In November of that year, to assure conformity with the federal document, Georgia revised the Constitution of 1777 through a constitutional convention. The shortest of Georgia’s constitutions, the Constitution of 1789 was modeled after the U.S. Constitution. Just as the U.S. Constitution responded to weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, so too did the Georgia Constitution of 1789 respond to weaknesses in the Georgia Constitution of 1777. Generally, the Constitution of 1789 slightly weakened the power of the legislature. It provided for a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and a judicial branch. The legislature, or General Assembly, was elected and had the power to select a governor, modeled after the U.S. president as the commander of Georgia’s military forces. The governor was allowed to serve a two-year term instead of a one-year term. The judicial branch received little attention. Civil liberties protections normally found in a bill of rights were also included in this constitution. The brevity of the document, coupled with public outrage over the involvement of state legislators in the Yazoo land fraud, made subsequent revision inevitable.
The Constitution of 1798
Seven of Georgia’s constitutions—those of 1777, 1789, 1861, 1865, 1868, 1877, and 1945—were directly associated with war-related periods; the Constitution of 1798 was one of only three framed completely under peaceful conditions. It was in effect for sixty-three years. Almost twice the length of the previous version, it contained detailed prescriptive measures. Provisions of the former constitution were clarified, and, in light of the Yazoo land fraud, legislative power was more carefully defined. In retrospect, it seems clear that many of the provisions included in this constitution more properly belonged in the state code. Although the legislature continued to be the dominant branch of government, the language used clearly struck a more realistic balance of power among the branches of state government. The governor would now be popularly elected, and a state supreme court was authorized by an 1835 amendment to the 1798 constitution (though not established until 1845). Before that point Georgia had relied on the work of local courts with no formal system of review, probably in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a ruling unfavorable to the state in Chisholm v. Georgia in 1793. Although slavery continued under the 1789 Constitution, the importation of enslaved Africans was prohibited after 1798.
The Constitution of 1861
During the Civil War (1861-65) and Reconstruction eras, four new constitutions were written by constitutional conventions and approved by the people (in 1861, 1865, 1868, and 1877). The new constitutions represented rapid changes in state governmental control during the war and its aftermath.
As a response to concerns that the federal government would outlaw slavery or disturb the delicate balance of slaveholding and nonslaveholding states by admitting New Mexico or California to the Union, a state convention had been assembled at the behest of the state legislature in Milledgeville in 1850. This convention issued a statement of policy that warned of secession, and the Secession Convention of 1861 adopted the Ordinance of Secession. A meeting of seceded states in 1861 adopted the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.
Patterned largely after the Confederate Constitution, the Georgia Constitution of 1861 was the first state constitution to be submitted to the people for ratification. Though earlier constitutions had enumerated only four or five personal liberties, the Constitution of 1861 incorporated a lengthy bill of rights. Adopted as Article 1, much of this portion of the constitution remains a part of the state constitution today. Among other things, the concepts of due process and judicial review were included for the first time.
The Constitution of 1865
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Georgia’s provisional governor, James Johnson, called for another constitutional convention. As in other seceded states, this convention was charged with framing a state constitution that would be acceptable to the federal government. The document had to include a repeal of the Ordinance of Secession, the abolition of slavery, and a repudiation of the war debt. The Constitution of 1865 was similar to the one of 1861. It continued the bill of rights and made no significant changes to the legislature. But it prohibited slavery and limited the governor to two terms. In a move to provide for further separation of the judicial and executive branches, the Constitution of 1865 provided that judges of all courts—except supreme court and superior court judges, who were selected by the legislature—would be elected by the people. The legislature was authorized to grant county and municipal authorities the power to tax, a change that enlarged home rule. In November 1866 the Georgia legislature refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a specific condition for readmission to the Union. The Constitution of 1865 was therefore rejected, and Georgia was placed under military control.
The Constitution of 1868
After the establishment of congressional Reconstruction and military rule in 1867, a group of elected delegates met in a new convention, which lasted from December 1867 to March 1868. The convention was dominated by northerners and northern sympathizers, but the principal leaders had resided in Georgia long enough to develop an interest in the state’s welfare. The makeup of the convention, however, led some to label it the “unconstitutional convention.” Major issues debated included the Fourteenth Amendment, qualifications of the electorate (particularly Black suffrage), debts and the relief of debtors, and the separation of powers. The relief of debt occupied the most attention, with the final version of the constitution including the first prohibition against imprisonment for debt and amnesty from debts contracted before June 1865. But Congress rejected these clauses, except for debts regarding the price of enslaved people or assistance with the rebellion.
The bill of rights was expanded, including the substance of the first paragraph of the Fourteenth Amendment. Suffrage was extended to all male citizens. The legislature remained essentially the same, with representation in the house changed to reflect population. The governor’s term was increased to four years, with no prohibition against reelection, and the power to pardon was moved from the General Assembly to the governor. The power of the governor to appoint state officials was expanded, the state judicial system was simplified, and the General Assembly was directed to provide a system of free general education to all children of the state. After a dispute regarding the seating of Black representatives, Georgia regained its position in the Congress, but it would be 1872 before Georgians participated in a free election for state officers.
The Constitution of 1877
As Georgia recovered from the war and Reconstruction, Democrats returned to power in the state, and as the “New South” emerged, support for a new state constitution solidified. A popular vote calling for a constitutional convention provided the final impetus for constitutional revision.
In July 1877, 193 elected members began work on a new state constitution. Working under a committee system and holding extensive debates, the convention completed its work a month later. The document was ratified by the public in December. In response to post-Reconstruction concerns, the new constitution included much more detail in almost all of its articles—restricting both individuals and institutions. Both legislative power and judicial interpretation were limited. As a result of these restrictions the constitution was amended 301 times over its lifetime; some of the amendments were local and temporary. Calls for revision were again inevitable, particularly as the state continued to change and develop.
The Constitution of 1945
In 1931 the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Georgia published “A Proposed Constitution for Georgia.” Though the document was produced for discussion purposes only, it helped to push a call for constitutional revision by the state legislature and Governor Ellis Arnall. As a result the governor appointed a twenty-three-member constitutional commission representing all three branches of government. Approval from the legislature and the voters was required. Working in subcommittees for two years, the commission completed the document in January 1945. Both houses of the General Assembly held public hearings to allow group and individual input. Governor Arnall promoted the inclusion of home rule, a merit system for state employees, and a prison board.
The Constitution of 1945 was ratified by the public in August 1945. It was considered streamlined, with changes confined primarily to the document’s form and organization. Approximately 90 percent of the provisions, however, were taken from the Constitution of 1877. Significant changes included the addition of the office of lieutenant governor, new constitutional officers, the creation of a state board of corrections and a state department of veterans’ service, authorization of jury service for women, and an increase in the number of justices in the state supreme court to seven. During the next thirty years the lack of substantive revision led to concerns about both the process and the substance of the Constitution of 1945.
The Constitution of 1976
Efforts to revise the Constitution of 1945 began as early as 1963. A revised version drafted by a new revision commission was approved by the General Assembly in 1964 but, because of legal concerns about a malapportioned legislature, was never submitted to the people. Another major effort began in 1969 when the legislature created another constitutional revision commission. The resulting document received the approval of the house, but not the senate, in 1970.
George Busbee, a member of the General Assembly during this failed attempt at revision, became convinced that revision of the entire document at once was too difficult. In 1974 he ran for governor, calling for an article-by-article revision. After he was elected, he requested that the office of legislative counsel prepare a “new” constitution for submission to the voters in the 1976 election. The office’s charge was only to reorganize the document, and not to make substantive changes. The revised document was easily passed by the state legislature and ratified by the Georgia voters. Although this revision did not produce substantive changes, it paved the way for a more thorough revision of the constitution.
The Constitution of 1983
In 1977, after the ratification of the 1976 Constitution, the General Assembly created the Select Committee on Constitutional Revision. Members included the governor as chair, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house, the attorney general, and representatives from the judiciary as well as both houses of the legislature. Beginning in 1977, the committee members agreed to a total revision. Each article would be drafted and approved individually by the Select Committee and the General Assembly. After a series of lengthy public meetings, agreement on a proposed new constitution was reached in late August 1981. The document was submitted to the General Assembly in an August/September 1981 special session convened to consider both reapportionment and constitutional revision. On September 25, 1981, the General Assembly approved the new constitution. Amended at the 1982 session of the legislature, the proposed constitution was submitted to the voters for ratification at the 1982 general election. Supported by leadership from all three branches of state government and bolstered by a strong effort to educate the public about its content, the Constitution of 1983 was overwhelmingly approved by voters and became effective on July 1, 1983.
The rallying cry of the Select Committee on Constitutional Revision had been “brevity, clarity, flexibility.” The final product reflected this goal. The 1983 constitution was about half as long as the 1976 Constitution; it was better organized and used simple modern English in place of arcane and cumbersome terminology. It gave the General Assembly greater flexibility to deal by statute with many matters that had been covered in the constitution itself. The most significant change between the Constitutions of 1976 and 1983 was that the latter document prohibited the inclusion of any further constitutional amendments relating to only a particular city, county, or other local political subdivision.
The 1983 Constitution was the first truly “new” constitution since 1877. It was the culmination of almost twenty years of discussion, debate, and compromise. A mixture of old and new, it contained provisions that first appeared in the Constitution of 1877 and also incorporated other provisions that had never existed before, such as the division of the courts into seven distinct classes, a requirement for uniform court rules and record-keeping rules by class for all classes of courts, the nonpartisan election of judges, and an equal protection clause. Like the nine constitutions preceding it, the Constitution of 1983 was, and is, a reflection of the state’s rich political and social history.