Russell Patrick Plato


Selective Entrenchment Against State Constitutional Change: Subject Matter Restrictions and the Threat of Differential Amendability

Russell Patrick Plato

In Wirzburger v. Galvin, Massachusetts citizens challenged the Massachusetts Constitution’s Excluded Matters provision, which is a type of subject matter restriction that prohibits popularly initiated amendment of enumerated portions of the state constitution. Because plaintiffs could not show a suspect class, discriminatory intent, or a direct impact on speech, the First Circuit applied deferential forms of First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause review and the challenge failed.

This Note argues that the current framework used to evaluate subject matter restrictions, exemplified by Wirzburger, provides insufficient protection against the serious harms such restrictions create. Subject matter restrictions create differential amendability, which makes it harder for citizens to change some aspects of a constitution than to change others. Differential amendability is a serious harm that distorts the design of well-functioning constitutional amendment procedures and threatens longstanding principles of popular sovereignty. Furthermore, this distortion creates a significant risk that barriers to amendment are being employed, intentionally or otherwise, to entrench temporary political supermajorities against future constitutional change.

This Note explores these risks and the possibility of controlling them through a federal constitutional analysis that draws on history, functional considerations, and existing voting rights case law. All three factors weigh in favor of engaging in a fundamental rights inquiry into subject matter restrictions. That inquiry might invalidate most subject matter restrictions, but its most significant contribution would be the cultivation of an interinstitutional dialogue over the possibilities and dangers of substantive restrictions on constitutional change at the state level.