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Pennsylvania Constitution

"The Constitution devotes the domain to
union, to justice, to defense, to welfare,
and to liberty."

- William Henry Seward, speech, March 1850
The Pennsylvania Constitution ( HTML, PDF, and Microsoft Word ) is the foundation of our state government - the well from which liberty and justice spring forth. Our first Constitution was adopted in 1776 and was a framework for the U.S. Constitution, which did not take effect until 1789.

The articles and amendments of the Pennsylvania Constitution compose the fundamental law of the Commonwealth. It ensures basic rights to our citizens, outlines the structure of our government, and provides the rules by which our representatives are elected and how they conduct the business of the state.

While this section of the book focuses on the Pennsylvania Constitution, the answers to many of the questions in other sections come directly from this important document. For additional information, it is suggested that the reader refer to the Constitution as a supplement to this guide to Pennsylvania government. A copy of the Pennsylvania Constitution may be obtained from your state legislator.

DECLARATION OF RIGHTS

13. WHAT ARE THE RIGHTS SET FORTH IN THE DECLARATION OF RIGHTS OF THE PENNSYLVANIA CONSTITUTION?
The Declaration of Rights of the Pennsylvania Constitution predates and was a model for the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. It is primarily a list of "don'ts" for the General Assembly in that it prohibits the enactment of laws that would infringe on certain rights.

Those rights and prohibitions are set forth in the 28 sections of the declaration, as follows:

Section 1 . Inherent Rights of Mankind
All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.

Section 2. Political Powers
All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.

Section 3. Religious Freedom
All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.

Section 4. Religion
No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

Section 5. Elections
Elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.

Section 6. Trial by Jury
Trial by jury shall be as heretofore, and the right thereof remain inviolate. The General Assembly may provide, however, by law, that a verdict may be rendered by not less than five-sixths of the jury in any civil case.

Section 7. Freedom of Press and Speech; Libels
The printing press shall be free to every person who may undertake to examine the proceeding of the Legislature or any branch of government, and no law shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty. No conviction shall be had in any prosecution for the publication of papers relating to the official conduct of officers or men in public capacity, or to any other matter proper for public investigation or information, where the fact that such publication was not maliciously or negligently made shall be established to the satisfaction of the jury; and in all indictments for libels the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.

Section 8. Security From Searches and Seizures
The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable case, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant.

Section 9. Rights of Accused in Criminal Prosecutions
In all criminal prosecutions the accused hath a right to be heard by himself and his counsel, to demand the nature and cause of the accusation against him, to meet the witnesses face to face, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and, in prosecutions by indictment or information, a speedy public trial by an impartial jury of the vicinage; he cannot be compelled to give evidence against himself, nor can he be deprived of his life, liberty or property, unless by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land. The use of a suppressed voluntary admission or voluntary confession to impeach the credibility of a person may be permitted and shall not be construed as compelling a person to give evidence against himself.

Section 10. Eminent Domain; Initiation of Criminal Proceedings; Twice in Jeopardy
Except as hereinafter provided no person shall, for any indictable offense, be proceeded against criminally by information, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service, in time of war or public danger, or by leave of the court for oppression or misdemeanor in office. Each of the several courts of common pleas may, with the approval of the Supreme Court, provide for the initiation of criminal proceedings therein by information filed in the manner provided by law. No person shall, for the same offense, be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall private property be taken or applied to public use, without authority of law and without just compensation being first made or secured.

Section 11. Open Courts; Suits Against the Commonwealth
All courts shall be open; and every man for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial or delay. Suits may be brought against the Commonwealth in such manner, in such courts and in such cases as the Legislature may by law direct.

Section 12. Power of Suspending Laws
No power of suspending laws shall be exercised unless by the Legislature or by its authority.

Section 13. Bail, Fines and Punishments
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishments inflicted.

Section 14. Prisoners to be Bailable; Habeas Corpus
All prisoners shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, unless for capital offenses when the proof is evident or presumption great; and the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in the case of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

Section 15. Special Criminal Tribunals
No commission shall issue creating special temporary criminal tribunals to try particular individuals or particular classes of cases.

Section 16. Insolvent Debtors
The person of a debtor, where there is not strong presumption of fraud, shall not be continued in prison after delivering up his estate for the benefit of his creditors in such manner as shall be prescribed by law.

Section 17. Ex Post Facto Laws; Impairment of Contracts
No ex post facto law, nor any law impairing the obligation of contracts, or making irrevocable any grant of special privilege or immunities, shall be passed.

Section 18. Attainder
No person shall be attained of treason or felony by the Legislature.

Section 19. Attainder Limited
No attainder shall work corruption of blood, nor, expect during the life of the offender, forfeiture of estate to the Commonwealth.

Section 20. Right of Petition
The citizens have a right in a peaceable manner to assemble together for their common good, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances or other proper purposes by petition, address or remonstrance.

Section 21 . Right to Bear Arms
The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.

Section 22. Standing Army; Military Subordinate to Civil Power
No standing army shall, in time of peace, be kept up without the consent of the Legislature, and the military shall in all cases and at all times be in strict subordination to the civil power.

Section 23. Quartering of Troops
No soldier shall in time of peace be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Section 24. Titles and Offices
The Legislature shall not grant any title of nobility or heredity distinction, nor create any office the appointment to which shall be for a longer term than during good behavior.

Section 25. Reservation of Powers in People
To guard against transgressions of the high powers which we have delegated, we declare that everything in this article is excepted out of the general powers of government and shall forever remain inviolate.

Section 26. No Discrimination by Commonwealth or Political Subdivisions.
Neither the Commonwealth nor any political subdivision thereof shall deny to any person the enjoyment of any civil right, nor discriminate against any person in the exercise of any civil right.

Section 27. Natural Resources and the Public Estate
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Section 28. Sexual Discrimination
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of the sex of the individual.

SEPARATION OF POWERS

14. WHAT IS MEANT BY "SEPARATION OF POWERS"?
The Pennsylvania Constitution provides in separate articles for three branches of government-legislative, executive, and judicial. There is a significant difference in the type of power granted to each branch.

The second article of the Constitution gives "legislative power of the Commonwealth" to the General Assembly, which includes both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The fourth article gives the Governor "supreme executive power."

Judicial power is addressed in the fifth article, which establishes "a unified judicial system consisting of the Supreme Court, the Superior Court, the Commonwealth Court, courts of common pleas, community courts, municipal and traffic courts in the City of Philadelphia, and other such courts as may be provided by law and justices of the peace."

This three-way separation of government is intended to keep each branch independent of the others, providing a system of checks and balances that offers protection against the concentration of power within one branch.

AMENDMENTS

15. HOW CAN THE CONSTITUTION BE AMENDED?
Amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution may be proposed in either the Senate or the House of Representatives but must pass in both by a majority vote of the members elected.

Three months before the next general election, the proposed amendment is published in at least two newspapers in every county. After the election, the amendment must again be approved through a majority vote of the members of the General Assembly. The amendment is again published and voted on by the entire electorate. If passed by a majority vote, the amendment becomes part of the Constitution.

No individual amendment can be submitted more often than once in five years, and when two or more amendments are submitted at once, they are voted on separately (see Article XI, Section 1 ).

16. WHAT ABOUT IN AN EMERGENCY?

The procedure to amend the Constitution is simplified somewhat when a major emergency threatens the safety and welfare of the Commonwealth. An emergency amendment can be proposed in the Senate or the House of Representatives at any regular or special session and must be passed by at least two-thirds of the members of both legislative bodies. The proposed amendment is then published in at least two newspapers in every county and is then voted upon by the electorate at least one month after being agreed to by the General Assembly. If there are two or more emergency amendments, they are voted on separately (see Article XI, Section 1).

17. HAS THIS EMERGENCY AMENDMENT PROCEDURE EVER BEEN USED?

Yes. Because of widespread damage to many parts of the state caused by Hurricane Agnes in the summer of 1972, a special session of the General Assembly was convened on August 14, 1972. A joint resolution was passed to amend the Constitution allowing the Assembly to enact laws providing tax rebates, credits, exemptions, grants-in-aid, state supplementations and other special provisions to individuals, corporations, associations, and nonprofit institutions, including private schools.

The purpose of this emergency amendment was to alleviate the danger, damage, suffering, and hardship as a result of a great storm or flood of September 1971 and June 1972. It was approved by the electorate on November 7, 1972.

This procedure was followed again in the regular sessions of 1975 and 1977, adding the years of 1974, 1975, and 1977. These additional emergency amendments were also approved by the electorate. Again, the purpose of these amendments was to permit financial aid to specified areas of the Commonwealth due to flooding and storms.

CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS

18. HOW MANY CONSTITUTIONS HAS PENNSYLVANIA HAD?
Four. The first Constitution was created in 1776 by a convention presided over by Benjamin Franklin. It was drafted when the great experiment of launching a free government in America was being undertaken and marked the passing of the old proprietary government and the transition from a colonial commonwealth. The second Constitution, in 1790, eliminated features of the original document found to be unwise or unworkable. It gave the Commonwealth a body of law that served as a model for future state constitutions in Pennsylvania and many other states as well. The convention that framed the Constitution of 1838 merely amended the previous version, keeping its main features intact. The fourth Constitution, that of 1874, was largely a result of public demand to address the issue of special legislation. It was drafted and adopted to meet new conditions and problems that resulted from the rapid growth and development of the state during and following the Civil War.

19. HOW CAN THE CONSTITUTION BE REVISED?

It takes a constitutional convention, called for by law, enacted by the General Assembly and approved by the people.
20. SINCE THE PRESENT CONSTITUTION WAS ADOPTED, HOW MANY TIMES HAS THE QUESTION OF A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION BEEN SUBMITTED TO THE PEOPLE?
Seven, most recently in the primary election of May 1967. The vote was 1,140,931 in favor of a constitutional convention and 703,576 against.

21. HOW MANY OF THOSE SEVEN TIMES WAS THE QUESTION APPROVED?

Only once, in 1967. That limited constitutional convention was called to consider the articles pertaining to legislative apportionment; judicial administration, organization, selection, and tenure; local government; taxation and state finance (with the exception of the uniformity clause already contained in the Constitution); and any amendment on the ballot in the 1967 primary election. As it turned out, the amendments on that ballot were approved, so they were not included at the convention.

Between 1873 and 1967, the question of a constitutional convention was defeated by the electorate six times.

22. BY WHAT VOTE WERE THE FOUR CONSTITUTIONS RATIFIED?

The Constitution of 1776 was not submitted to the people for a vote, instead being adopted by the convention. Of 96 members, 95 were present when the Constitution was signed, but 23 failed to do so.

In 1790, the Constitution was again adopted by convention rather than submitted to the people. This time, of 69 members, 63 signed the document. The convention completed the new Constitution on February 6, 1790, and then recessed with the purpose of finding out how the people felt about it. They reassembled on September 2, 1790, for the signing and then adjourned.

The Constitution of 1838 was the first to be submitted to the people for ratification. The vote was 113,971 for and 112,759 against-a slim majority of 1,212 votes. The main support for this Constitution came from the northern and western counties, with opposition coming from southeastern counties and the large cities.

Pennsylvania's present Constitution was ratified by the people on December 16, 1873, by a vote of 253,744 for and 108,594 against.

23. WHAT WERE THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO AND THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE PENNSYLVANIA CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1967-68?

Our present Constitution was drafted in 1872-73 and ratified in 1874. Even before the turn of the century, several of its provisions were outmoded, and they consequently hampered the government's ability to meet the people's changing needs. Nevertheless, voters rejected calls for open constitutional conventions six times between 1890 and 1963.

In 1967, the General Assembly passed, and the Governor approved, a bill calling for a limited constitutional convention to consider articles pertaining to: legislative apportionment; judicial administration, organization, selection and tenure; local government; taxation and state finance (except for the uniformity clause in the Constitution's taxation and finance article); and any amendment to the Constitution on the ballot in the 1967 primary election.

Because several of the originally proposed amendments were approved by the voters prior to the 1967 primary, only the four subject areas listed above needed to be addressed through a constitutional convention. The voters approved a limited convention to consider them in the 1967 primary election.

Act No. 2, the law authorizing the limited constitutional convention, called for the election of 150 delegates and designated 13 ex officio delegates, totaling 163. In the November 1967 municipal election, voters elected three delegates from each of the state's 50 senatorial districts. The ex officio delegates included the Lieutenant Governor and the Majority and Minority leadership of both the Senate and the House.

Act No. 2 placed several restrictions on the convention. The Act:

  • set a three-month life for the convention, from Dec. 1, 1967, to Feb. 29, 1968;
  • prohibited the convention from making any recommendation permitting or prohibiting the imposition of a graduated income tax;
  • prohibited changing the portion of the Constitution specifying that all taxes should be uniform, for the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax; and
  • prohibited the convention from altering the restriction that the Motor License Fund should be used solely for public highways, bridges, and air navigation facilities.
The Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1967-68, convened in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Harrisburg, was organized by the following officers: Lt. Gov. Raymond J. Broderick, President of the convention; Robert P. Casey, First Vice President; Frank A. Orban, Jr., Second Vice President; and James A. Michener, Secretary.

During December, delegates submitted 209 proposals, which were referred to the appropriate committees and subcommittees where they were carefully studied, analyzed and discussed. Public hearings were then held to augment information gained from pro-convention hearings.

Seven proposals emerged through the subcommittee and public hearing review process. In February 1968, these proposals were given to the full convention for debate and amendment. They were adopted by the convention in early March and ratified by the voters on April 23, 1968.