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Minnesota's constitution references slavery — but voters may have the chance to hit delete

Christopher Lehman, an ethnic studies professor at St. Cloud State University, testifies Feb. 25 before the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division on HF3008. Sponsored by Rep. John Lesch, the bill would propose a constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery or involuntary servitude as criminal punishment for a crime. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Is slavery in Minnesota possible?

The ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 abolishing slavery outlawed it everywhere in the country.

However, since 1858, Article I, Section 2 of the Minnesota Constitution has read: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as a punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.”

HF3008, sponsored by Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), proposes to ask voters in November’s general election whether to amend the state constitution to delete references to slavery and involuntary servitude as being possible punishments for a crime.

“(It) is our state values document,” Lesch said. “Removing the last vestiges of slavery from the Minnesota Constitution is a moral imperative.”

The bill was approved by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division Tuesday and sent to the House Corrections Division. Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Mpls) sponsors the companion, SF2974, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Christopher Lehman, professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University, testified that the words in the state constitution “problematically suggest the possibility of legal enslavement of convicts” and need to be removed for that reason alone.

But an even more important reason to remove them, Lehman said, is to excise the shameful legacy of slavery and its harmful effects that remain in Minnesota today.

Although Minnesota was a free state going back to territorial times, Lehman noted many business owners, such as fur traders, conducted business with southern slave owners in the late 1800s.

Lehman said his academic research has shown that slaveholders invested in the University of Minnesota and almost completely funded the development of the towns of Belle Plaine and Shakopee.

“Minnesota did not need slaves physically within its borders in order to financially benefit from slavery,” he said.


Possible impact on prison work programs

Several division members said they were worried about the unintended consequences of the bill, specifically that removing references to slavery and involuntary servitude from the state constitution could jeopardize low-wage inmate work programs that are in some state prisons.

Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) and Rep. Jack Considine Jr. (DFL-Mankato) wondered whether the proposed change could cause Corrections Department programs such as Sentencing to Service to be declared unconstitutional by the courts in response to a lawsuit alleging that they are akin to slavery.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell testified that despite the low wages paid to inmates in these work programs – they range from 25 cents to $1.50 per hour – participating in them is completely voluntary for inmates.

It’s therefore unlikely that courts would rule these programs to be unconstitutional slavery or involuntary servitude, Schnell said. To his knowledge, no other states making similar changes to their constitutions have faced such lawsuits.


Amending the Minnesota Constitution

The legislative route to amend the Minnesota Constitution mostly follows the same path as other bills: introduction, committee approval, and passage by the House and Senate.

Instead of then going to the governor for action, however, a proposed constitutional amendment would then move to the secretary of state to be placed on the ballot on the next statewide even-year election.

Since 1900, the constitution has required the approval of a majority of those voting at the election — not just a majority of those voting on the amendment question — to ratify the amendment. Thus, if a person votes in the election, failure to vote on an amendment is the equivalent of a “No” vote.

The nonpartisan House Research Department estimates that historically, it has taken roughly a 60 percent “Yes” vote to pass a constitutional amendment.

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