State Sen. Vincent Sheheen addressed Erskine students and faculty as well as members of the Due West community Sept. 18 at a special “Constitutional Convocation” in observance of Constitution Day, which commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.
His topic was “The U.S. Constitution: A View from the South Carolina State Legislature.”
Sheheen praised the U.S. Constitution, with its original focus on “creating a country, creating a government,” for its “simplicity” and “ability to adapt to changing times,” avoiding policy questions and passing concerns.
He criticized South Carolina’s state constitution, on the other hand, for its outdated or unconstitutional provisions dealing with state governance and its forays into such administrative complexities as regulation of alcoholic beverage sales and pension fund investment.
For example, the state constitution stipulates that there be one state senator for every county in South Carolina, a stipulation that is ignored, and also allows for literacy tests for voting, a practice declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 20th century.
The state’s last constitutional convention took place in 1895. Since that time, constitutional amendments have been proposed and voted on, but the constitution has been retained.
Other states have seen problems with their constitutions, and a number have taken action. “About 20 states have held constitutional conventions since 1950,” Sheheen said. “I say we do the same thing in South Carolina.”
The senator, whose family has been in Camden, S.C., for several generations, said of his home state’s constitution, “South Carolina is a great state in a great country. We deserve better than what we have.”
Sheheen, a Democrat, outlined his views concerning South Carolina’s need for a new constitution in “The Constitutional Convention of 2011,” co-authored with State Sen. Thomas C. Davis, a Republican, and published in the Spring 2009 Charleston Law Review.
Taking time to answer students’ questions, Sheheen responded to a query about what three emphases he would include in a new constitution.
The U.S. Constitution provides for separation of powers, and Sheheen said that would be his first emphasis. He would also stress open government. Finally, he said, he would ensure that more power be retained locally, noting that the current constitution has had a “neutering effect” on local government.
Sheheen, whose father was a state education commissioner, served as a city prosecutor and then a state representative before his election to the South Carolina Senate in 2004.
He lost to Nikki Haley by four percentage points in the 2010 South Carolina gubernatorial contest.
Andy Brack, publisher and columnist of StatehouseReport.com, has described Sheheen as a representative of “the pragmatic tradition of South Carolina found in dynamic leaders such as former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley.”