Florida revolution, national turning point
By Andrew Steadman (JD 15)
The modern-day Florida Constitution took effect in 1968, mandating that the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission convene in 1978 and every 20 years thereafter.
A new book by UF Law Professor Mary Adkins (JD 91) describes the state’s constitutional transformation. In Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New State Constitution (2016, University Press of Florida), Adkins shows that the Florida Constitution was shaped by national events, including the Civil Rights Movement and several groundbreaking opinions by the Supreme Court of the United States.
“Florida’s whole government really boomeranged from being ‘backward’ to being really well put-together,” Adkins said. “The Florida Constitution was that hinge between old and new.”
The “backward” government was based on an 1885 constitution that adhered to segregationist principles. Adkins said the 1885 constitution was poorly drafted and required numerous amendments. Despite its flaws, the 1885 constitution remained in effect until the mid-20th century.
Adkins became interested in the process through which the 1968 constitution was adopted when she read the autobiography of former Florida Gov. Kenneth “Buddy” MacKay Jr. (JD 61).
Adkins’ research led to interviews with members of the 1966 constitutional revision commission and other Florida political figures of the time, including former governors and legislators. She also consulted the State Archives of Florida in Tallahassee and the special collections section of the library at the University of Florida.
“Part of my thesis for the book is that the constitution would not have been revised if it were not for the ‘one person, one vote’ Supreme Court decision,” Adkins said. The case was Swann v. Adams, 383 U.S. 210 (1966).
Adkins said the Pork Chop Gang, a group of legislators representing rural counties, was able to maintain a voting majority in the Florida Legislature because apportionment under the 1885 constitution mandated that the most populous county could have no more than three times the number of representatives than the least populous county.
“You have a lot of little counties and they’ve all got a vote, and you have giant counties that just have three votes,” Adkins said. “At its worst, less than 20 percent of Florida’s population could elect a majority of each house.”
UF Law Professor Darren Hutchinson, whose expertise includes constitutional law, race and the law, and civil rights, said the Pork Chop Gang sought to enforce segregationist policies through legislation. The group worried that the increasing populations in Florida’s urban areas would threaten its grasp on legislative power.
“After Reconstruction, a lot of the white southerners who saw their power being threatened came up with schemes to keep both blacks – former slaves – and northerners from getting power in state government,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said apportionment under the 1885 constitution was one of several methods segregationists used to disenfranchise African-American voters.
“Florida used the same mechanisms that other southern states used to disenfranchise blacks: literacy tests, poll taxes, the grandfather clause,” Hutchinson said. “The KKK was very active in threatening blacks and white Republicans who wanted to vote in Florida.”
However, by the mid-1960s, the Pork Chop Gang’s grip on political power in Florida was slipping.
“They were still in charge, but they were weakened,” Adkins said. “At that point, they (the Pork Chop Gang) approved a constitution revision commission” to draft a revised constitution and present its work to the Legislature for approval.
The Legislature “probably still thought, however, ‘We’ll let this group work for a year, they’ll give us their work product, and if we don’t like it, we can vote it down,’” Adkins said.
The commission worked throughout 1966 and Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr. called a special session of the Legislature on Jan. 9, 1967, for the sole purpose of considering the draft of a new constitution.
“At noon on that day, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the Florida reapportionment case, again finding the state’s apportionment plan to be unconstitutional,” Adkins said.
Swann was one of three Supreme Court cases – in addition to Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), and Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964) – that represented a shift in the court’s stance on apportionment and voters’ rights in the late 1960s. Florida was not the only state dealing with voter disenfranchisement at the time: Baker addressed malapportionment in Tennessee, while Reynolds came from Alabama.
Hutchinson said the social activism of the time spurred the Court to rule on issues that had previously been left up to the individual states.
“The Court is not a vacuum,” Hutchinson said. “Some of these cases were being brought by civil rights activists. This was the Warren Court, which took a lot of cues from the Civil Rights Movement.”
After The Supreme Court found that Florida’s reapportionment scheme was unconstitutional, the Legislature adopted a reapportionment plan that had been created by Manning J. Dauer, a political science professor at the University of Florida. “One person, one vote” had defeated the Pork Chop Gang’s segregationist objectives. The newly apportioned legislature approved the new constitution, with only minor revisions, and placed it on the 1968 ballot, where voters approved it.
Jon Mills, UF Law professor and former dean, a former Florida House speaker and the person selected “Most Valuable Member” of the 1998 Florida Constitution Revision Commission, said Adkins’ book will serve as an excellent primer for scholars and students of his class on Florida constitutional law and do so much more.
“There are a number of Florida constitutional interpretations that have had a nationwide impact,” Mills observed. The most prominent is the Supreme Court’s Swann decision that ruled Florida’s legislative districts unconstitutional. Another influence, Mills said, is the state’s use of constitutional revision commissions. “Other states may well consider that model,” he said.