"The Constitution devotes the domain to
- William Henry Seward, speech, March 1850
union, to justice, to defense, to welfare,
and to liberty."
The Pennsylvania Constitution (
) 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The fourth article gives the Governor "supreme executive
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
- 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.
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
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.