Newton’s death could slow new-constitution efforts

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In this Tuesday, April 7, 2007 file photo, Alabama state Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, speaks during debate on the House floor at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/The Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh, File)
 
by Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — For years, Democratic Rep. Demetrius Newton championed efforts in the Alabama Legislature to call a convention to write the state a new constitution, saying parts of it were outdated, offensive and even racist.

Newton, a civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. during battles against segregation, died Wednesday at 85. Now, no one seems to know what will happen to Newton’s push to draft a new constitution.

Newton — who became the first African-American to serve as speaker pro tem of the Alabama House — had repeatedly said Alabama’s 1901 constitution was outdated, too long and included racist language in parts that made it an embarrassment. That includes no-longer-enforceable language providing for schools separated by race and for paying poll taxes, which were designed to keep poor Blacks from voting. Alabama voters have twice refused to remove the language, with the last vote coming in 2012.

Rep. Rod Scott of Birmingham said he supported what Newton was trying to do and hopes someone will take up where Newton left off.

“It’s a sad day,” said Lenora Pate, chairman of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. “It’s s not a bump in the road. It’s a significant loss.” Pate said she regrets that Newton’s dream of seeing a new constitution for Alabama won’t come true in his lifetime.

But no one seems to know who might take up his cause, particularly since the Alabama Legislature has regularly rejected most efforts to rewrite the lengthy document since its adoption more than a century ago.

Former Alabama Gov. Albert Brewer, a longtime advocate of state constitutional reform, acknowledged Newton’s death would hurt the cause.

“He was committed to the need for a convention that would rewrite the constitution,” said Brewer, chairman of a commission that has been studying ways to revise the constitution.

Newton’s efforts suffered a setback in 2012 when voters turned down an amendment that would have thrown out the language referencing racial segregation in schools and poll taxes. Opposition to that amendment was led mostly by the state’s teacher union, the Alabama Education Association, and some Black lawmakers who argued that taking out the racially-charged language would also keep the constitution from guaranteeing state funding for public education.

An earlier effort to remove the racist language was opposed by conservative groups that feared it would lead to higher taxes.

Newton and others argued that the racist language makes Alabama look bad, even though poll taxes and segregation of schools have been declared illegal by the courts.

There have been numerous proposals on how to rewrite the constitution. Those include Newton’s proposal to ask voters in a referendum if they wanted a new constitution. If voters said “yes,” a convention would be called and delegates would write the new document.

Brewer said it’s typical for a legislator to doggedly pursue an issue, and this was Newton’s project. “He showed that tenacity about constitutional reform,” Brewer noted.

Newton came to the Legislature with a long record of pushing civil right causes. As a lawyer, he represented icons Parks and King, as well as many people arrested during civil rights demonstrations.

Republican Rep. Paul DeMarco of Homewood has pushed hard for the Legislature to rewrite the constitution article by article and avoid the influence of lobbyists. He fears special interest groups would dominate a convention.

DeMarco and Newton would at times debate the benefits of both plans in front of legislators. DeMarco, who was in high school when Newton was first elected, said he didn’t agree with Newton’s approach to constitutional reform. Even though they disagreed, DeMarco said Newton “always appreciated that I was making an effort.”

Longtime constitutional reform advocate Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn University history professor, said he doesn’t think the Alabama Legislature is going to let the “people draft our own constitution.”

Flynt said he doesn’t see the idea Newton fought for happening anytime soon.

“A people’s convention is the Alabama Legislature’s and special interest groups’ worst nightmare,” Flynt said.

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