Judging Democracy

Arizona statehood was delayed in 1911 because of a proposed constitution that was too ... liberal?

Arizona statehood appeared imminent as August dawned 100 years ago. But because of a progressive draft constitution—labeled as "ultra radicalism" and "a dangerous demagogic document"—it would take six more months before Arizona became the 48th state.

The Arizona and New Mexico territories both received permission in June 1910 to prepare constitutions prior to joining the other 46 states of the union. Three months later, the male voters of Arizona (women were a few years away from getting the right to vote) selected 52 men to draft a constitution. Of these, only 11 were Republicans, including the five Pima County representatives.

The election results, declared The Associated Press, "makes certain the incorporation of the principles of direct legislation, the initiative, referendum and recall in the new state constitution."

The delegates assembled in Phoenix in October 1910, and according to press reports, "the most bitter fight of the convention" was expected to occur the following month: The proposal was made to give voters the ability to recall judges. Many observers believed that the provision wouldn't be acceptable to U.S. President William Howard Taft.

"It is understood that tremendous pressure was brought on the members to have the judges immune from the recall," reported the Arizona Daily Star, "but the majority leaders gave it out that all elective officers would be included in the recall."

The convention adopted a specific recall provision, including judges, by a 37-11 tally. "Another nail, the longest and the strongest of all," the Arizona Republican on Nov. 11, 1910, concluded of the vote, "was driven into the coffin of statehood yesterday."

Despite the Phoenix newspaper's pessimism, a month later, the convention adjourned "in fine spirits," with a document supported by 40 of the delegates.

After that, a Pima County judge wrote of the draft constitution: "I do not believe that the provisions for the 'Recall' which the constitution contains ... require any misconduct to be either alleged or proved before an officer may be recalled." The judge recommended that Arizona voters reject the document.

The Star called the proposed constitution "socialistic" and editorialized: "Instead of bringing us statehood, it most unfortunately will close the door against us."

When the Arizona electorate went to the polls in February 1911, voters overwhelmingly disagreed: By an almost 3-to-1 margin, they ratified the draft constitution.

The issue then moved to Washington, D.C., where Congress debated a statehood bill that would eventually be considered by Taft. A lawyer and judge, the president sent strong signals that he wasn't pleased with the recall provision.

Members of the U.S. Senate were somewhat confused about the issue and asked for comments from the territory. "Do you think the people of Arizona generally would rather remain out of the Union than to have the recall of judges eliminated from constitution?" a senator from Idaho inquired.

In response, both local newspapers—the Star and Tucson Citizen—along with the Chamber of Commerce and some individuals, telegrammed Washington, D.C., stating that statehood came first. But neither the Pima County Board of Supervisors nor the Tucson City Council bothered to reply to the inquiry.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in May 1911 that left the recall-of-judges matter alone. It also combined statehood for Arizona and New Mexico into one piece of legislation.

When this measure went to the U.S. Senate, two competing amendments were proposed. One required Arizona voters to remove the judicial-recall measure before statehood would be granted. The other simply mandated them to vote specifically on the issue.

The latter proposal was approved by a 53-18 vote. "Even some senators who declared their opposition to the recall of judges," a story in the Star pointed out, "voted against the (former) amendment on the ground that if the people of Arizona wanted the recall, it is not for Congress to say whether they should have it."

In response to the Senate's affirmation of the bill, the Star put out a free extra edition on Aug. 8, 1911. "Statehood" proclaimed its huge banner headline.

In addition, the newspaper reported on a celebration to mark the historic occasion. "By 8 o'clock there was a big bonfire burning at the corner of Church and Pennington streets," the Star announced. "Fire crackers were popping and the crowd gathering. Then the Old Pueblo band played ... ."

The celebration was premature. Although there had been speculation that Taft might let the act become law without his signature, or that Congress would perhaps override a presidential veto, those possibilities quickly faded.

Taft let it be known he would veto the statehood bill. That left the people of New Mexico, according to one newspaper article, "gloom(y) and (with) forebodings of ill."

The Washington Post, on the other hand, applauded the president's decision. "That the recall was inserted into the constitution of Arizona in its original form," the newspaper stated, "was deplorable."

In his veto message to Congress, Taft wrote of the recall measure: "Could there be a system more ingeniously devised to subject judges to momentary gusts of popular passion than this?"

In response to the veto, The New York Times said of the president's stance: "It is very comprehensive, soberly stated, clear, simple and practical."

It may have been all those things, but in August 1911, it also meant that Arizona remained a territory.

As the next six months would show, however, statehood had been delayed, not denied.

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