THE CLAIM: Advocates of constitutional reform have long claimed that the 1901 Alabama Constitution is longer than any other founding government document, anywhere. On its website, Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform calls it the “longest known Constitution in the world.” The Alabama State Bar Association has also called it the “longest constitution in the world.” The claim has been widely repeated in the press.
SUMMARY: It's less an established fact than a hypothesis — but it's a hypothesis with very strong support. Law professors and law librarians say they don't know of a longer constitution, but that doesn't mean that there's not one out there.
ANALYSIS: With more than 850 amendments governing everything from animal burials to mosquito control, the 1901 Alabama Constitution is clearly a monster. The document stood at 376,006 words on Jan. 1, according to the Council of State Governments, which reports annually on statistics affecting the states.
That makes the 1901 Constitution by far the longest of the state constitutions. That's more than four times as long as the next runner-up, Texas, with a constitution that runs to 86,936 words. Oklahoma comes in third with 81,666 words. The shortest state constitution is in Vermont, at 8,565 words.
But is it really the longest governing document in the entire world? That's a much harder issue to track. The United Nations has 193 member countries, most of which have written constitutions. Add in constitutions for states, territories and semi-autonomous native tribes, and you've got a lot of words to count.
There's no one agency that catalogs and tracks the length of constitutions, and the widespread assertion about Alabama's Constitution appears to have stood for all these years simply because no one has found a way to knock it down.
“No one's shown us one that's larger,” Nancy Ekberg, a spokeswoman for Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform told The Star in October. In conversations with The Star last week, Ekberg reiterated that while no one has found a larger governing document, she couldn't be absolutely sure there wasn't one.
It's a question that law librarians at two law schools — the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University and the University of Alabama School of Law — couldn't answer definitively, when asked by The Star.
“I can't really tell you whether it's the longest in the world,” said Cumberland law librarian Edward Craig. “But it's far ahead of any of the other states.”
University of Alabama law professor Bryan Fair said the claim was probably true, though he knew of no study that proved the assertion.
“We have 5 million people, and there are countries with a billion people where the constitution is not that long,” Fair said.
There's one democracy with a billion residents: India, where a post-colonial constitution, written in the late 1940s, has ballooned over the last half-century. Accounts in the press cite India's constitution as the world's longest national governing document — though it does appear to be shorter than Alabama's by a longshot.
An English-language version of the Indian Constitution, made available as an online PDF by the Indian Ministry of Law and justice, fills 396 pages in a standard law-book format. The Star's most recent hard copy of the Alabama Constitution, laid out in a similar format, fills 777 pages.
Comparing a state constitution to foreign documents, Fair said, was an “apples and oranges” comparison for a variety of reasons. Yet the length of Alabama's document, he said, is in fact a problem.
“The problem is that the Constitution becomes inaccessible to the public,” he said. “For the public to understand it, well, that's rendered almost impossible.”
Fair cited one notable recent example: Alabama's Nov. 6 vote on an amendment to take segregationist wording out of the Constitution. The measure drew opposition because the amendment included language that denied children the right to an education. But Fair said there was substantial disagreement about the effect that language would actually have, much of it based on the Constitution's complexity.
Fair said he believed the “world's longest Constitution” idea may have come from journalist and reform advocate Bailey Thomson, who edited “A Century of Controversy,” a book popular among reform advocates.
Thomson died in 2003. In the book, and in a television documentary series, Thomson calls the 1901 document “the nation's longest.” In a speech in 2000, Thomson said it was “probably the longest in the Western world.” The Star found no statement in which Thomson said it was the world's longest.
To cover all the bases, The Star also contacted the publishers of the Guinness Book of World Records, longtime chroniclers of superlatives of all sorts. A representative for the company said the length of constitutions is something the company has not tracked.
Based on the evidence, or lack of it, Alabama seems to have a strong claim to this dubious world record. But that record could fall at any moment, if someone shows up with a heretofore unknown governing document longer than 376,000 words.
Statewide & capitol correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.