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1. This week’s edition of #50Weeks50Constitutions leaves the lower 48 to explore the constitutional history of the 49th State. Alaska, the #LastFrontier, was admitted in January 1959, the first state admitted in over four decades!
2. The U.S. bought the land from the Russians in 1867, who had used it as a fur wardrobe since Vitus Bering’s crew first stepped foot in 1741 (& treated native Alaskans no better in the process). You can read about Bering’s amazing story here:…
3. Other than Alaskan natives, the land was sparsely populated & the government seemingly uninterested in it. Its slow response to an 1879 attack on one of the few settlements was long remembered by many Alaskans and led to longstanding distrust.
4. Alaska did not become an official territory until 1912. But even then, Congress severely restricted the territorial legislature’s power while retaining control over vital topics and retained a veto over legislation.
5. Due to their lack of full autonomy, Alaskans’ expectations for development and services went unmet. But WWII would change that. With the war Alaska became a key part of the strategy in the Pacific campaign and, in turn, a key location in the Cold War.
6. The statehood movement was already rolling before the war, but Alaska's strategic location coupled with a dramatic population increase made it even stronger. The House even passed a statehood bill in 1950, but the Korean War pushed it to the backburner. Then Alaskans waited.
7. So in 1955 the territory decided to go it alone and call a constitutional convention. The convention was held at a university to encourage deliberation. The number of delegates was set at 55—the same as the Philadelphia convention.
8. The drafters drew on the wealth of information about state constitutions & were strongly influenced by the state constitution reform movement. The movement, which began in the 1930s, focused on simplification, streamlining, & removing provisions better left for codebooks.
9. The convention met from November 1955-February 1956 and included a two-week break around the holidays which enabled the delegates to return to their communities and get feedback on the process from the voters who would ultimately decide whether the accept this constitution.
10. The drafters focused on writing a moderate and short document to ensure its approval. But there were some significant debates about individual rights. One concerned qualifications for voting. The original committee provision required voters to read and speak English.
11. While some wanted to make this provision stronger and require voters to write in English as well, the one native Alaskan delegate was instrumental in defeating this proposal and changing the provision to only requiring voters to read *or* speak English.
12. There was also a debate over voting age. Some advocated lowering the age to 18, when people graduated high school and men were eligible for military conscription. But not wanting to break too much new ground, the delegates compromised and settled on 19.
13. The voters approved this Constitution by a wide margin in April 1856. But it took 3 years for Congress to approve it. Part of this hesitancy was a desire to pair it with another state (Hawaii) with different political leaning so as to not upset the Senate’s political balance.
14. Alaskans have only amended this Constitution about 30 times. Alaskans seem pleased with their Constitution as it calls for a vote on whether to establish a new convention every decade and the voters have rejected it each time.
15. The Alaskan Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the Declaration of Rights independently from the federal counterparts. This is most notable when it comes to protections for the free exercise of religion.
16. The AK Supreme Court has consistently held since Frank v. State (1979) that a neutral law of general applicability that impacts free exercise must pass strict scrutiny even tho SCOTUS came to the opposite conclusion about the U.S. Constitution in Employment Division v. Smith.
17. The delegates to the Alaska constitutional convention had the benefit of hindsight and the ability to see what worked with state constitutions, and more importantly, what didn’t. The lack of frequent amendments shows that the delegates used this hindsight well.
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