By Katy Spence
In 1972, 100 Montanans gathered in Helena to rewrite the State Constitution. On September 1, 2021, six of them reunited in a small ceremony in the Old Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol to receive MEIC’s Conservationist of the Year Award.
“We are absolutely tardy in giving you this honor,” Anne Hedges, MEIC Director of Policy, said. “For nearly 30 years, I’ve been working at MEIC and relying on the words that you all put to paper.”
Delegates in attendance were, in order of speaking: Mae Nan Ellingson, Arlyne Reichert, Gene Harbaugh, Jerry Loendorf, Lyle Monroe, and Bob Campbell.
Former Governor Brian Schweitzer opened the event, pointing out the uniqueness of Montana’s Constitution. He noted the citizens’ right to privacy is protected in the new Constitution. He also pointed out the number of women who helped write the document, an unprecedented for that time 19 of the 100 delegates.
“At its time, [the Convention] was very progressive and represented Montana,” Gov. Schweitzer said. “We are protected by the words that you have written, and I thank you for that. All of Montana thanks you for that.”
The 1972 Convention was a groundbreaking event. Hundreds of Montanans ran during primary and general elections to be elected as a delegate. Of the 100 delegates, 58 were Democrats, 36 Republicans, and 6 Independents. Delegate Arlyne Reichert noted that they decided to sit alphabetically, so as not to give in to partisanship.
“I think that we set a perfect example that exemplifies how people can get along without getting bogged down with these partisan politics,” Reichert said.
In the end, the delegates’ work in 1972 gave Montana what many consider a “model” state constitution. Along with a substantial declaration of rights, it included sunshine laws to open up the government and grant citizens the right to know and participate in government decision-making. MEIC has relied on these constitutional provisions for generations in the quest to hold government accountable.
It bestowed upon all of us our beloved right to a “clean and healthful environment,” which Delegate Bob Campbell helped cinch. The inclusion of “clean and healthful” was essential — and controversial. After it was voted down several times, Campbell addressed his fellow delegates with a hypothetical: “Some little kid is going to come up to me or you and say ‘What did you do about my environment in the future?’ And you’re going to have to say, ‘We decided to have one.’”
The phrase finally passed. MEIC Board Member Roger Sullivan noted that this inclusion is vital for the health of Montana’s environment.
“‘Our Constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state’s rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked,’” he quoted from the 1999 Supreme Court decision, MEIC v. DEQ. “For that, we remain forever grateful and thankful to you.”
Check out the article in the September 2021 edition of Down to Earth.