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Montana’s Declaration of Rights should be protected

by Rick Applegate
| May 5, 2022 12:00 AM

Fifty years ago I was unbelievably blessed to be the research staff for the Declaration of Rights Committee of the Montana Constitutional Convention. As we approach the 50th Anniversary, I must give a solemn nod to the recent passing of two giants: Bill of Rights Committee Chairman Wade Dahood and Committee member Bob Campbell, primary reasons Montana has such a spectacular document.

They had a lot of help, from committee members Chet Blaylock, Dorothy Eck, George James, Don Foster, Marshall Murray and Lyle Monroe as well as other delegates, including Mae Nan Ellingson, Arlyne Reichert, and Leo Graybill.

While only ten of the original 100 are still with us, they left a legacy unmatched in any state or national constitutions.

The Montana Constitution’s Declaration of Rights remains the strongest assemblage of protections of civil liberties and political freedoms ever put to paper and adopted. In “Sources of Democracy,” renowned constitutional scholar Saul Padover surveyed hundreds of years of historical documents and concluded his book with Montana’s Declaration of Rights. He saw it as the very best in the long history of documents designed to favor rule by the governed over control by elites or monarchs, by the privileged, or by authoritarians and other deniers of the belief that principled citizens are the best guides in public life, so long as they search for the common good. Wade, Bob and their fellow delegates monumentally succeeded in that.

Montana’s declaration of rights includes: the fundamental rights of free speech, assembly and religion; an inalienable right of all citizens to a clean and healthful environment; the right to pursue life’s basic necessities.

Here the dignity of the individual is an inviolable right. Montana’s strong right of individual privacy can be infringed only on showing of a compelling state interest. Our right to know and obtain documents is limited only when the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure. Montana is the only state with a Constitutional right of participation in governmental decision-making before the decisions occur.

Citizen access and ability to participate is a requirement placed upon all levels of government in Montana, including the previously secretive legislature.

Government often fights that, but the Constitution prevails.

There are limits on the ability of the government to shield itself from lawsuits brought by citizens who have been harmed by government, overcoming the ancient rationalization that the “king can do no wrong.” Our strong anti-discrimination provision applies to government, but also to private entities that can and have denied civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition or political or religious views.

The Equal Rights Amendment is enshrined right there — the delegates made it clear on the floor that Montana should not stand by and wait for the federal government to see the light and constitutionally guarantee women equal rights, something that still has not happened.

There is a clear guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The right of suffrage is not to be impaired in any way, an issue that is maddeningly still under attack, a threat all too real in our discomfiting history. Persons under the age of majority are guaranteed the same rights as adults unless special protections are warranted.

The criminal justice system is required to prevent crime, promote reformation, public safety and restitution. Felons are to obtain full rights upon completion of their penalty.

There is an individual right to keep and bear arms that provides the same individual right that was found in the 1889 Montana Constitution. In fact, the 1972 Constitutional Convention adopted all rights in the earlier Constitution and built upon them.

To the ends of the earth, you will look in vain for another comparably broad and inclusive Declaration of Rights. No one has more rights and protections than the citizens of Montana.

While some lightly or cavalierly attack our Constitution and Declaration of Rights for political advantage, the late, great Chairman Wade Dahood, the man I have called the shepherd of the Bill of Rights, bluntly stated in his last recorded interview that Montana’s Declaration of Rights should be left alone, respected and protected by citizens and public officials alike. For the ages.

In addition to his work at Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention, Rick Applegate, originally from Libby, has over the last half century worked in Montana, in Congress and the Northwest on a broad range of natural resource issues.