The Vermont Constitution Explained
The Vermont Constitution is the basic law for the state of Vermont. It has a rich history, and has been modified many times since the late 18th century. A full constitution was written in 1777 when Vermont was a young, independent republic. Another was written in 1786, just five years before Vermont became a state of the United States.
The version presented on this site is the most recent version, originally written in 1793. Major changes were made in 1836 and 1870. In 1913, amendments made to that point were incorporated into the text by the Supreme Court. The current version also includes changes made to it by the Vermont Supreme Court as mandated by the state legislature to make the language more inclusive and gender-neutral.
A remarkable feature of all three versions is the separation of the document. Chapter 1 is a declaration of the rights of Vermonters. Whereas the Bill of Rights was a second thought in the U.S. Constitution, a bill of rights has existed in the Vermont Constitution from its earliest beginnings.
Chapter 2 of the constitution is the framework of the government of the state, establishing the three branches of government and their members. This separation is far from unique today, but it traces its roots back to the 1777 version, long before the Framers in Philadelphia decided upon the same system for the United States.
The original constitution was modeled after that of Pennsylvania, written by Benjamin Franklin. One of the most noted and notable features of the bill of rights was the conditional abolition of slavery (the conditions were that men could be held to be a "servant, slave or apprentice" until age 21, and women until age 18).
This document will explain each of the sections and articles of the Vermont Constitution. It is not a substitute for the reading the Constitution itself, but rather as a guide and supplement.
Chapter 1 of the Vermont Constitution is a bill of rights, or, as the Constitution itself says, "A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the State of Vermont." The divisions within Chapter 1 are called "Articles."
Article 1 illustrates Vermont's anti-slavery history, but also reflects society of the 1790's. Specifically, no one born here or brought here from overseas is to be held as a servant, slave, or apprentice by simple will of the law. There is an exception for persons under 21 - presumably this clause was to prevent children from seeking emancipation rather than allowing slavery. The Article does allow for servitude for payment of debts, fines, and other costs, though Vermont has not had poor houses or poor farms since the mid 1900's.
Article 2 firmly establishes eminent domain for the state, but requires fair payment, in money, for any takings.
Article 3 recognizes freedom of religion. It states that no one shall be compelled to worship in any manner contrary to their wishes, nor help pay for churches or ministers. No civil right can be denied because of someone's religious beliefs. The state, nor any authority, can control rights of conscience. The Christian beliefs of the Framers appear in the last clause, however, as a reminder is given to all Christians that they should worship on Sundays.
Article 4 guarantees access to the courts for all Vermonters, and that access to the courts cannot be bought and sold.
Article 5 reflects the fears of the times by ensuring that the state police shall be under the civilian rule of the legislature.
Article 6 reminds the members of the executive and legislative branches that they are servants of the people, and are accountable to them.
Article 7 states that the government shall be instituted for the common benefit of the people and for the peoples' defense and security. No one person, family, or group is to be singled out for more benefits of government over any other. The people have ultimate control of the government, and have an absolute right to change it in any way decided by the community.
Article 8 ensures free and fair elections and establishes basic requirements for suffrage.
Article 9 speaks of the defense of the state. It says that everyone is entitled to the protection of the state, and as such, everyone is also subject to be called to help defend the state. Those able to pay to avoid militia service can do so, and those who are opposed to taking up arms can also pay an equivalent. It also states that any tax that is levied should be of an obvious benefit to the community, more so than if the money were not collected.
Article 10 concerns the rights of the accused. These include the right to a lawyer, to be heard in court, to be told the charge, to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury. In addition, only a unanimous jury can find someone guilty. The accused has the right to not testify against himself. In non-death penalty cases, a jury trial may be waived, if the prosecutor agrees. Note that Vermont is not a death penalty state.
Article 11 prohibits warrantless searches and seizures, and notes that warrants shall be specifically written.
Article 12 guarantees jury trials in any case, civil or criminal, where there is any issue in fact.
Article 13 guarantees free speech and a free press.
Article 14 recognizes the importance of free debate in the legislature, and guarantees immunity from anything said in the legislature.
Article 15 states that only the legislature has the power to suspend laws or to suspend the execution of laws.
Article 16 guarantees a right to bear arms. It also calls standing armies dangerous to liberty and discourages them, and ensures civilian power over the military. Vermont, of course, does not have an army.
Article 17 prohibits martial law except for those in the army or in the militia during time of actual service.
Article 18 reminds the people that they have a responsibility to uphold their own rights and liberties by choosing representatives who will stand for those principles.
Article 19 guarantees the right to move freely from out of Vermont into another state, and from other states into Vermont.
Article 20 guarantees the right to assemble in order to instruct the legislature and to petition for redress of grievance.
Article 21 states that trials for crimes committed in Vermont shall be held in Vermont.
Chapter 2 of the Vermont Constitution is the framework for the government. The divisions within Chapter 2 are called "Sections."
Section 1 states how the State shall be governed.
Section 2 establishes the legislature, divided into a Senate and a House of Representatives. Though it is not stated here, the legislature is also often referred to as the General Assembly.
Section 3 establishes the executive, exercised by the Governor or Lieutenant-Governor.
Section 4 establishes the judiciary, divided into a Supreme Court, a Superior Court, and those lower courts that the legislative branch creates.
Section 5 affirms the separation of the powers of the legislature, executive, and judiciary, stating that they shall each be "separate and distinct."
Section 6 begins the definition of the legislature by officially designating the House and Senate as the General Assembly. It notes that both the House and Senate shall have equal powers of legislation, and each shall have a veto of the acts of the other. All revenue bills must originate in the House. Neither may adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other, and both must meet in the same location. Most other powers of the law are granted, including the ability to incorporate towns and to create counties. But the legislature is prohibited from changing the Constitution.
Section 7 states that the General Assembly shall meet for biannual sessions, every odd numbered year. Note that this does not mean that the legislature meets only every other year. It means that every two years a new legislature meets. The actual schedule is that the General Assembly meets from about January to May each year. In the even-numbered years, the same members meet that met the last year.
Section 8 mandates open meetings of General Assembly.
Section 9 requires that journals of the votes and proceedings of the General Assembly be printed if at least one third of the members vote. Votes are recorded by voice vote unless five Representatives or one Senator request individually recorded votes.
Section 10 dictates the first line of every properly enacted law.
Section 11 describes the general process used to make a bill into a law. Bills passed by the General Assembly are given to the Governor to sign. If the Governor wishes, he can veto the bill, sending his reasons, in writing, back the legislature. A veto may be overridden by a two-third vote in both Houses. If the Governor refuses to sign, the bill becomes law after five days. A pocket veto is available.
Section 12 states that members of the General Assembly cannot receive fees for bringing bills before the legislature, and they cannot act as lobbyists.
Section 13 details how many members comprise the House (150). The state shall be divided into districts, with one or two members from each district. Though town lines cannot always be followed, this section states that they should be respected in the establishment of districts.
Section 14 states that a simple majority of the Representatives comprises a quorum, except when raising a state tax, in which case two-thirds comprises a quorum. The members are the judges of House elections, expel members, and may conduct impeachments.
Section 15 imposes residency requirements on members of the General Assembly - two years in the state, and one year in the district.
Section 16 states the oath that Representatives are to take.
Section 17 states a second oath that all members of the General Assembly are to take, swearing that they do not hold an office established by the U.S. Congress.
Section 18 states the number of members of the Senate (30). One or more Senators shall come from each of the established Senatorial districts. The boundaries of counties and other divisions are to be taken into consideration when establishing districts.
Section 19 details the powers of the Senate - that it is the judge of its own elections and may expel members. A majority constitutes a quorum. The Lieutenant-Governor is the President of the Senate, and can vote only with a casting vote (only when there is a tie). The Senate can elect a President pro tem.
Section 20 begins a detailing of the executive. The list of the Governor's powers is extensive, including the power to appoint officers in the military, to fill vacancies, is to conduct business with other states, and may propose legislation. He has an absolute pardon power, except in cases of treason. He can embargo goods from import or export for up to 30 days when the legislature is not in session. The Governor is commander in chief of the armed forces, though he cannot lead from the front lines of any battle.
Section 21 creates the position of Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs, who serves at the pleasure of the Governor.
Section 22 notes that all commissions are be made by the Governor in the name of the people of the State, and are to be sealed with the state seal.
Section 23 states the residence requirements for the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor (four years).
Section 24 states that the General Assembly can make law to provide for who will be Governor in the absence of both a Governor and Lieutenant-Governor. If the office of Treasurer is vacant, the Governor will appoint a Treasurer to act until the next election.
Section 25 requires the Treasurer and all Sheriffs to give security to the state prior to taking office. The amounts to be given are to be set by the legislature.
Section 26 requires that the state's books, as kept by the Treasurer, be audited annually and reported to the legislature.
Section 27 requires that all money withdrawn from the treasury be first approved by the legislature.
Section 28 begins the detailing of the judiciary by noting that the courts shall be open, impartial, incorrupt, and speedy.
Section 29 describes the Supreme Court, comprised of one Chief Justice and four associates.
Section 30 describes the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. It has appellate jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases. It has original jurisdiction over only those cases provided by law. It has control over all state courts and judicial officers, as well as all attorneys practicing in the state.
Section 31 describes the lower courts of Vermont, and specifies that they have original and appellate jurisdiction as directed by law. The lower courts may be divided geographically. The section also notes that these courts may address issues of equity as well as those of law.
Section 32 notes that the Governor shall have the power to fill vacancies of all judgeships, with the approval of the Senate, except those that are elected. The Governor shall choose a replacement from a list provided by a nominating body selected by the General Assembly.
Section 33 provides for the filling of a judgeship by the Governor when the Senate is not in session. The appointment must be approved by the Senate in its next sitting or else the position is vacated.
Section 34 sets judicial terms for all appointed judges at six years. At the end of six years, each judge may file a notice of desire to continue in office. If the judge desires to stay in office, he shall for another full term unless a majority of the General Assembly votes against continuance.
Section 35 sets the age of retirement for judges at 70. Appointed judges must retire at the end of the calendar year in which they turn 70. Elected judges must retire at the end of the term in which they turn 70.
Section 36 specifies that judges hold their positions during good behavior. The Supreme Court may suspend any judge, including a justice of the Supreme Court.
Section 37 states that the Supreme Court shall make the rules for all of the courts, civil and criminal, and that all such rules are subject to change by the General Assembly.
Section 38 provides that all issues in dispute in any trial shall be decided by a jury, and that all juries shall be impartial and incorrupt.
Section 39 specifies the language to be used in all prosecutions and indictments. All fines shall be in proportion to the offense.
Section 40 is a lengthy section concerning bail. Bail shall be set and shall not be excessive. When the evidence of guilt is great in a crime that carries a possible sentence of death or life imprisonment, bail need not be set. Bail might not be set for a person accused of a violent felony when there is great evidence of guilt and release on bail would place another person in jeopardy of harm, provided that any such denial of bail is subject to review by a justice of the Supreme Court. Bail may also be denied for anyone convicted and awaiting sentencing. Anyone held without bail is entitled to review by three justices of the Supreme Court within seven days. When a person is denied bail, except when the possible punishment is death or life imprisonment, trial must commence within 60 days or else bail must be set. No imprisonment may be imposed for debtors.
Section 41 concerns habeas corpus, which shall not be suspended.
Section 42 concerns the Freeman's Oath, also known as the Freewoman's Oath. The oath must be taken before anyone can vote in Vermont. The oath may be taken by anyone 18 years or older, who has lived in Vermont for a period set by the General Assembly, and who is of "quiet and peaceable behavior." The oath is detailed in this section.
Section 43 specifies biennial elections and lists the offices that are subject to election: Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Auditor of Accounts, Senators, Representatives, Assistant Judges of the County Court, Sheriffs, High Bailiffs, State's Attorneys, Judges of Probate, and Justices of the Peace. Election Day is set as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every other year starting in 1914.
Section 44 restates that election day for Senators and Representative is the first Tuesday after the first Monday, every other year, beginning in 1974.
Section 45 state that the manner of election, as well as that of certification and the filling of vacancies, for Senators and Representative, is set by law.
Section 46 sets the term for Senators and Representatives: two years beginning on the first Monday following election.
Section 47 details the election of the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, and Treasurer. To be a winner, there must be a majority vote. If there is no majority vote, the General Assembly chooses a winner for that office from the top three vote-getters.
Section 48 states that the Secretary of State and State Auditor shall be elected with the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor and Treasurer.
Section 49 sets the terms of the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, and Treasurer at two years, beginning at the opening of the General Assembly.
Section 50 sets terms for other officers: Assistant Judges, Sheriffs, and State's Attorneys each for four years, beginning the first of February after the election.
Section 51 sets terms for Probate Judges: four years beginning the first of February after the election.
Section 52 sets rules for Justices of the Peace. Towns with fewer than 1000 people may elect up to five; 1000 to 2000 may elect seven; 2000 to 3000 may elect ten; 3000 to 5000 may elect up to twelve; towns of over 5000 persons may elect up to 15. Justices of the Peace have no judicial powers, but may serve as magistrates if commissioned by the Supreme Court.
Section 53 states that filling of the following offices will be set by law: Assistant Judges, Sheriffs, State's Attorneys, Probate Judges, and Justices of the Peace.
Section 54 basically states that no person may hold two state offices at once, nor may they hold a federal and state office, except members of the reserve armed forces.
Section 55 ensures free and fair elections and forbids the giving or taking of gifts in exchange for votes.
Section 56 provides an oath of allegiance and an oath of office, both of which must be taken before assuming office.
Section 57 states that the House may impeach on any two-thirds vote.
Section 58 states that all members of the executive and judiciary are subject to impeachment by the House. The Senate tries impeachments - a two-thirds vote is required by conviction.
Section 59 refers to the state militia, and states that all inhabitants shall be trained and armed for the defense of the state, subject to state and federal regulation.
Section 60 states that the Legislature may neither declare someone guilty of treason nor a felony, nor may it overrule a guilty verdict in a trial.
Section 61 states a philosophy that all persons should have a trade such that they need not depend upon a state job for income. However, when called to state service, the state shall compensate a person reasonably. Any "office of profit" that becomes so popular that many apply for it should have its salary reduced by the Legislature. Anyone who takes more in fees from the state than the law allows shall be barred from holding any office of the state until reinstated by the Legislature.
Section 62 states that all deeds will be kept in Town or County Clerk offices.
Section 63 states that the Legislature will regulate "entails" (inheritance only to specific heirs without the power to sell or transfer property) so as to prevent "perpetuities" (permanent ownership by a family).
Section 64 states that criminals shall be used as examples - they shall be put to hard labor that is visible by the public and shall be put to use for the benefit of the state or to their victims.
Section 65 requires that estates of those who commit suicide will descend to heirs normally, and not be surrendered. It also prohibits deodands (an object which caused someone's death which was forfeited to the state).
Section 66 anyone may come to the state and purchase real estate. After residence of one year, that person is considered a citizen. After two years, the person will be eligible to be elected Treasurer, Representative, or Senator.
Section 67 ensures the right to hunt and fish, subject to regulation by the Legislature.
Section 68 encourages laws to discourage vice, and encourages that each town maintain a school. Religious and charitable societies are also encouraged.
Section 69 was added in 1913, to relieve the General Assembly of the burden of researching and incorporating towns and villages. The amendment authorizes the incorporation through use of general law as opposed to special legislation for that express purpose.
Section 70 authorizes the General Assembly to create laws covering workers' compensation.
Section 71 ensures the full incorporation of Chapter I into the Constitution.
Section 72 details how the Constitution can be amended. The process can be quite lengthy. Starting in 1975, and every four years thereafter, the Senate can propose an amendment, by two-thirds vote. The House of Representatives must concur with a majority vote. The amendment must be held over until the next session of the General Assembly (following elections). In that session, a majority of both the House and Senate must reapprove the amendment. Following that, the amendment must be put to the voters, and upon a majority vote of the voters, the amendment will become a part of the Constitution. Amendments may only be proposed by legislatures convening in the following years: 1975, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and every four years thereafter.
Section 73 concerns apportionment of the House and Senate. The section is an embodiment of the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man one vote" rule. In the session following the U.S. Census, the legislative boundaries are redrawn to ensure equal representation in each house of the legislature. If the legislature cannot agree on boundaries by their adjournment, the Supreme Court will determine the boundaries.
Section 74 is a temporary amendment, clarifying the term of office of persons elected in 1912.
Section 75 is a temporary amendment, authorizing the justices of the Supreme Court to incorporate all amendments to the Constitution into the body of the Constitution itself, removing repealed sections and adding new ones.
Section 76 is a temporary amendment, authorizing the justices of the Supreme Court to modify the language of the Constitution to be gender-neutral.