1

Panel: 1972 Montana Constitution ‘hard fought,’ ‘inspiring’

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher in front of the stairs of the Montana Capitol (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

Even after the Montana Constitution guaranteed people the “right to know,” reporter Charles S. Johnson had to eavesdrop on at least one secret meeting by listening to legislators through pipes that carried sound in an old building.

During the 1972 Constitutional Convention, Delegate Dorothy Eck played a key role in ensuring the “right to know,” said Johnson, retired longtime statehouse reporter. He said it isn’t a perfect solution, and it’s been challenged, but it’s a key guarantee to knowing the business of government.

“It’s a critical part of the Constitution,” Johnson said. “People need to know what their government is doing in order to know if they support the government, don’t support the government, or whatever.”

This week at an event hosted by Montana State University in Bozeman and the Montana Free Press, Johnson spoke as part of a panel on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1972 Montana Constitution following the Constitutional Convention, the “Con Con.” Other panelists were former Gov. Marc Racicot, Delegate Mae Nan Ellingson, U.S. Sen. and Ambassador Max Baucus and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

In her introduction, MSU President Waded Cruzado said James Garlington of Missoula described 50 years ago the way his fellow delegates had been challenged and changed by their collaboration and negotiation over those 60 days. She said he called the document “the finest gift to the young people of Montana it is in our power to give.”

“‘We’re giving them the gift of participation in their present and the management of their future,’” Cruzado quoted. “And we are so thankful for that gift.”

The delegates were largely different from other elected bodies in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court said they couldn’t be sitting electeds, so they were mostly ordinary people and not politicians, mostly people who hadn’t served in government previously, according to presenters.

“It was one of the secrets of the convention’s success,” Johnson said.

And the farmers, homemakers, ranchers, a beekeeper, a car dealer, veterinarian, and other Montanans did business differently than the Legislature, according to a video played of interviews with delegates and staff of the Con Con. They sat in alphabetical order instead of by party. They debated but didn’t bicker. And rather than doing business in secret, they threw the doors open to the public.

The result was a document that protected the “right to know,” to privacy, to a “clean and healthful environment,” the last probably the “hardest fought” clause, Ellingson said. The Constitution also established the full authority of the Board of Regents to govern public higher education, and it shifted power away from corporate interests to place control of Montana in the hands of the people.

The 100 delegates included not one Native American (“an embarrassment,” Johnson said, and likely the result of elections based on county lines), but the document also recognized and committed to preserving in education “the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians.”

In a video played during the event held at MSU-Bozeman, Delegate Wade Dahood said he knew some older delegates from eastern Montana were not going to campaign in favor of the newly written Constitution. But he said all 100 of them still solemnly signed the document.

“I must admit, when the last one signed, I had tears in my eyes,” Dahood said.

In the video, Delegate Lyle Monroe said he went home and put a bumper sticker on his car that said, “Praise the Lord and pass the Constitution,” and the same year, Montana voters ratified the new Constitution. They did so by roughly 2,500 votes.

Held live on Tuesday night, the event has drawn more than 1,000 participants in all: MSU counted roughly 300 people who attended in person, 200 who viewed live online, and 800 who had viewed the recording as of late Wednesday afternoon. In the recording, panelists noted the ways the Constitution allowed Montana to work differently, but Racicot also said its spirit, in part to live in a civil society with a connection to others, is vulnerable.

“This is incredibly urgent,” said Racicot, a Republican. “What’s going on in our country is incredibly urgent. And I think that the republic is at risk as a result of our inability to read those words from the preamble and to weave them through every facet of our lives.”

Since 1972, Montanans have built on the principles the Constitution established. Juneau said the convention brought young Native American students to testify in front of a group that wasn’t at all like them, and their testimony made a difference in ensuring their Native American heritage and culture were part of the document replacing the 1889 Constitution.

“I think it shows the power of advocacy and how representation matters,” said Juneau, a Democrat.

She also spoke to the right to know. Juneau said knowing the conversations the delegates had around a quality education and the preservation of culture allowed the state to implement robust policies tied to those values. 

The right to know in Montana also inspired Baucus to work to make conferences open in Washington, D.C., after he as an elected official had to bluff his way past a security officer to get in the door to one such meeting. The Democrat’s service as a staff member to the Constitutional Convention was a relatively short period in his political career compared to his 35 years in the U.S. Senate and time as an ambassador to China, but he said it was meaningful.

“I cannot think of anything in my years of public service that’s as inspiring as that several months working with the Montana Constitutional Convention seeing 100 people just really dedicate themselves to doing the right thing,” Baucus said.

Johnson, who will receive an honorary doctorate from MSU this year, said Montana in one sense won a right-to-know battle but lost a war when caucuses were forced open because the real debates simply went to bars and people’s homes. When he was eavesdropping through the pipe, he heard one of the lawmakers say it was time to let the reporter in the room, so he had to race back to the door and pretend to be surprised at the news.

He said he didn’t want to offend justices, but he disagreed with the Montana Supreme Court’s recent decision that allows some subcommittee meetings smaller than quorums to be secret since the Constitution says legislative meetings must be open.

“That was a horrible decision in my opinion,” Johnson said.

In the months ahead, Ellingson said she and University of Montana law professor and constitutional scholar Anthony Johnstone will be creating some programming to learn if Montanans still believe in the Constitution’s values and if there’s something “creating agitation.”

“I hope that there’s going to be nine of those meetings across the state where communities will be able to weigh in on the values that are in this Constitution and whether they are still values that we hold as Montanans,” Ellingson said.