How Do State Constitutions Differ from the Federal Constitution?

Scott Kafker
Scott Kafker

Scott Kafker has served as chief justice of the Appeals Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the past two years. Alongside his responsibilities as a judge, Scott Kafker is a legal scholar who focuses largely on state constitutional law. For six years, he taught a course on the subject at Boston College Law School.

Most Americans are familiar with the Constitution of the United States, but not necessarily with how individual state constitutions relate to that document. The federal document defines the structure of the national government as well as the scope of its power. Each state has its own constitution, which outlines the structure of its own legislative, judicial, and executive branches. State constitutions also contain a bill of rights, similar to the federal Constitution.

State constitutions typically focus on limiting powers, since general authority is already established through the state legislature’s police powers. Often, state constitutions are incredibly long and address unique issues rather than constitutional ones. Alabama’s constitution, for example, runs for 600 pages, whereas the US Constitution can be read in a single sitting.

Also, state constitutions tend to be amended easily. Massachusetts has amended its constitution 120 times. Changing the federal Constitution is much more difficult. Since the 1791 Bill of Rights, only 17 amendments have been made.

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