What’s Up with the Amendments? A Close Look at Constitutional Amendment #7

This year there are eight constitutional amendments on the November 8 ballot. Some are a bit complicated, and all require a little homework before you cast your vote. To assist, we’re breaking the list into bite-size chunks. Leading up to the start of early voting on October 25, we will highlight one amendment every few days to give you the background and context you need to understand what they do. And for lagniappe, we offer CABL’s recommendations on each of them.   

Amendment # 7  Remove Exception in the Prohibition of Involuntary Servitude

What It Does: Eliminates an exception in the constitution that allows for involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

Background: This amendment is an example of why it is so important to get the language right when presenting constitutional amendments to voters.

For the last couple of years there has been discussion around the Capitol about changing language in the constitution that deals with the vestiges of slavery in general and “involuntary servitude” in particular. Currently the Louisiana constitution states that “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.”

A technical reading of that line would suggest that slavery is constitutionally prohibited, but involuntary servitude is permitted as a form of criminal punishment. The issue has been that in the eyes of many, the terms “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” are synonymous, based on historical usage, and the current constitutional language effectively creates an exception that allows something analogous to slavery to continue.

Because of that, some legislators in Louisiana have been pushing to do what three other states have recently done and clarify the meaning of that type of language in their constitutions. But this amendment does not seem to have accomplished what its author intended.

Again, our current constitution says that “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” Compare that with the wording of this amendment: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, (but this) does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

This wording may seem nuanced, but technically it can be read to permit both slavery and involuntary servitude in a certain circumstance where the current constitution says that slavery is explicitly prohibited.

Comments: Supporters of changing the language are admittedly trying to thread a needle that makes clear that slavery and involuntary servitude are constitutionally prohibited in Louisiana, but the use of inmate labor is not. Four other states have similar ballot measures up for votes this year, including Tennessee.

The Tennessee amendment might be helpful. It states: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.” That type of language could provide more clarity for Louisiana and offer guidance to the amendment’s author who now says he will vote against it in the hopes of coming back with a new version next year.

All of this has to be confusing for voters. On the one hand, it would seem the whole discussion is largely symbolic because nothing would actually change with the passage of this amendment.  But symbolism can be important. When it’s effective it can represent a big thought or lofty ideal that we want to convey within the context of our constitution. In this case, that’s all the more reason to take the time to get the language on this one right.

CABL Recommendation: OPPOSE

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