Constitution of Virginia

Constitution of Virginia
The Virginia Constitutional Convention, 1830, by George Catlin

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia is the document that defines and limits the powers of the state government and the basic rights of the citizens of the U.S. Commonwealth of Virginia. Like all other state constitutions, it is supreme over Virginia's laws and acts of government, though it may be superseded by the United States Constitution and U.S. federal law.

The original Virginia Constitution of 1776 was enacted in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence by the first thirteen states of the United States of America. Virginia was the first state to adopt its own constitution, and the document was widely influential both in the United States and abroad.[1] In addition to frequent amendments, there have been six major subsequent revisions of the constitution (in 1830, 1851, 1864, 1870, 1902, and the one currently in effect, in 1971). These new constitutions have been part of, and in reaction to, periods of major regional, racial or social upheaval in Virginia.


Historic Constitutions

George Mason, one of the principal architects of the 1776 Virginia Constitution


The preparation of the first Virginia Constitution began in early 1776, in the midst of the early events of the American Revolution. Among those who drafted the 1776 Constitution were George Mason and James Madison. Thomas Jefferson was Virginia's representative to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia at the time, and his drafts of the Virginia constitution arrived too late to be incorporated into the final document.[2] James Madison's work on the Virginia Constitution helped him develop the ideas and skills that he would later use as one of the main architects of the United States Constitution.[3]

The 1776 Constitution declared the dissolution of the rule of Great Britain over Virginia and accused England's King George III of establishing a "detestable and insupportable tyranny". It also established separation of governmental powers, with the creation of the bicameral Virginia General Assembly as the legislative body of the state and the Governor of Virginia as the "chief magistrate" or executive. The accompanying Virginia Declaration of Rights, written primarily by Mason, focuses on guarantees of basic human rights and freedoms and the fundamental purpose of government. It, in turn, served as a model for a number of other historic documents, including the United States Bill of Rights.

Critically, the 1776 Constitution limited the right to vote primarily to property owners and men of wealth. This effectively concentrated power in the hands of the landowners and aristocracy of Southeastern Virginia.[1] Dissatisfaction with this power structure would come to dominate Virginia's constitutional debate for almost a century.[4]

1830 Virginia Constitution, page one


By the 1820s, Virginia was one of only two states that limited voting to landowners, and the residents of Western Virginia (the area that would become West Virginia in 1863) had grown increasingly discontented with their lack of representation in the legislature.[4] The pressure increased until a constitutional convention was convened in 1829–1830. This convention was largely a contest between eastern Virginia landowners and the less affluent residents of Western Virginia, and the debate was dominated by issues of representation and suffrage.[5] Delegates to the convention included such prominent Virginians as James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler, and John Marshall.[6]

The convention ultimately compromised by loosening the requirements for suffrage and reducing the number of delegates and senators to the Virginia General Assembly. The resulting constitution was ratified by a popular majority, though most of the voters in the western part of the state ended up voting against it.[7] Thus, the underlying intrastate tensions remained and set the stage for another showdown.


As of the 1840 census, western Virginia contained the majority of the white residents of the state, and their increasing proportional underrepresentation greatly compounding the dissatisfaction with the electoral scheme adopted in 1830. Western Virginians made several attempts to win electoral reform in the Virginia legislature but were defeated each time. Their resulting sense of frustration reached the point that some began to openly discuss the abolition of slavery or secession from the state.[8] Ultimately, these pressures could not be ignored by the East, and a new constitutional convention was called met to resolve the continuing tensions.

The most significant change adopted in the resulting 1851 Constitution was that the property requirement for voting was eliminated, meaning that all white male residents of Virginia could now vote. The 1851 Constitution further established that the Governor, the newly created office of Lieutenant Governor, and all Virginia judges would be popularly elected. In light of the progress made toward resolving long festering issues of suffrage and representation, the 1851 Virginia Constitution became known as the "Reform Constitution".[9]

Portrait of Francis H. Pierpont, Governor and driving force behind the 1864 Constitution


When, in 1861, Virginia voted for secession in the events leading up to the American Civil War, all of the western and several of the northern counties dissented and set up a separate government with Francis H. Pierpont as Governor. It was this separate government that, during the midst of the Civil War, approved the separation of West Virginia and the creation of a new Constitution in 1864.[10] Thus, this Constitution was the product of a divided state and government, and also the first, since the original 1776 Constitution, to be adopted without a popular vote.

The 1864 Constitution abolished slavery in Virginia, disfranchised any representatives who served in the Confederate government and adjusted the number and terms of office of the members of the Virginia Assembly.[11] The foreword to the current Virginia Constitution does not include the 1864 Constitution in its list of previous constitutions, noting that the 1864 Constitution was drafted under wartime conditions and thus of uncertain legal significance.[12]


John C. Underwood. He so dominated the 1867–1868 constitutional convention that the resulting document became known as the "Underwood Constitution".

After the end of the Civil War, Virginia came briefly under military rule, with John M. Schofield in command. Pursuant to federal Reconstruction legislation, General Schofield promptly called for a new constitutional convention to meet in Richmond from December 1867 to April 1868. In protest of black suffrage, many of Virginia's conservative whites refused to participate in the voting for delegates.[13] As a result, Radical Republicans, led by Judge John Curtiss Underwood, dominated the convention, and the resulting constitution became known as the "Underwood Constitution."[14] Opponents to its ratification derisively called it the "Negro Constitution."[13]

Significant provisions in the Underwood Constitution included extending the right to vote to all male citizens over the age of 21 (thus granting the vote to African American males), establishing a state school system with mandatory funding and attendance, and providing that judges would be elected by the General Assembly rather than by popular election.[15] Controversy over clauses that continued the disfranchisement of former Confederate government members delayed the adoption of the Constitution. However, a compromise was eventually reached that provided for separate voting on the disfranchisement clauses and the rest of the Constitution, with the former failing to win approval.[11] The remainder of the Underwood Constitution was ratified by a popular vote of 210,585 to 9,136, and went into effect in 1870.


By the turn of the Twentieth century, the Jim Crow era had taken root, and six Southern states had already disenfranchised African American voters. Political pressure mounted within Virginia to eliminate the black vote, ostensibly as a way to stop electoral fraud and corruption.[16] The 1901 constitutional convention met during this climate, and the convention was primarily focused on restricting such voting rights without violating the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution or disenfranchising poor whites.[17] The delegates, under the leadership of future Senator Carter Glass, accomplished this goal by creating requirements that all prospective voters had to pay poll taxes or pass a literacy test. An exemption was granted for military veterans and sons of veterans, who were virtually all white. The changes were effective in disenfranchising black voters, though many illiterate whites were also unable to meet the new requirements; succeeding elections showed that the Virginia electorate had effectively been cut in half as a result of the changes.[18]

Other significant provisions of the 1902 Constitution included the requirement of racial segregation in schools and the abolition of the county court system. The Constitution also provided for the creation of the State Corporation Commission to regulate the growing power of the railroads.[19] Ultimately, concern over African American opposition resulted in the convention refusing to honor its pledge that the proposed constitution would be put to popular vote.[20] Thus, like the 1864 Constitution, the 1902 Constitution was adopted without ratification by the electorate. It ended up remaining in effect far longer than any previous Virginia constitution.[21]

Current Constitution (1971)

The 24th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a series of Supreme Court cases, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education, had struck down the most controversial aspects of the 1902 Constitution – the provisions restricting voting by African Americans and mandating school segregation. This, combined with the election of Governor Mills Godwin in 1965, created an impetus for governmental change. Godwin strongly advocated the loosening of the strict constitutional restrictions on state issued bonds and borrowing, and used his power and popularity to push for a new constitution. So, in 1968 a joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly approved a new commission, chaired by former Governor Albertis Harrison, to revise the constitution.[22]

The Commission on Constitutional Revision presented its report and recommendations to Governor Godwin and the General Assembly in January 1969, and continued to work with them to draft a final consensus version.[23] The proposed Constitution was then overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Virginia and took effect on July 1, 1971.

The current Constitution of Virginia consists of twelve Articles:[24]

Article I – Bill of Rights

Article I contains the entire original Virginia Declaration of Rights from the 1776 Constitution. However, several of the sections have been expanded to incorporate concepts from the United States Bill of Rights, including the right to due process, the prohibition against double jeopardy and the right to bear arms. Like the Federal Constitution, the Virginia Bill of Rights, in §17, states that the listing of certain rights is not to be construed to exclude other rights held by the people.

In 1997, a Victims' Rights Amendment was added to the Virginia Bill of Rights as §8-A. In Nobrega v. Commonwealth, the only case so far to interpret this amendment, the Virginia Supreme Court used the Victims’s Rights Amendment to support its ruling that an alleged rape victim could not be compelled to submit to a psychiatric evaluation.[25]

On November 7, 2006, another amendment, previously approved by the General Assembly, prohibiting same-sex marriage was ratified by Virginia voters to be added to the Bill of Rights.[26] This amendment also prohibits the recognition of any "union, partnership, or other legal status" between unmarried people that intends to approximate marriage or which confers the "rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage." The Virginia Attorney General has issued an opinion stating that the amendment does not change the legal status of documents such as contracts, wills, or Advanced Medical Directives between unmarried people.[27]

Article II – Franchise and Officers

The second Article of the Constitution sets out the procedures and mechanisms for voting, elections and holding office. Pursuant to Section 1, any Virginia resident over age 18 may vote in state elections; the voting age was reduced from 21 by a 1972 amendment to the federal constitution.[28] However, § 1 denies the vote to people who have been determined to be mentally incompetent or anyone convicted of a felony. Disenfranchising convicted felons has been found to be consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.[29] The General Assembly, pursuant to §4, is given wide power to regulate the time place and manner of all elections.[30]

Section Five establishes that the only qualifications to hold office in Virginia are that a person must have been a Virginia resident for at least one year and eligible to vote. Any statute or rule requiring other qualifications is constitutionally invalid under this section.[31] However, the General Assembly can impose local residency requirements for election to local governmental bodies or for election to the Assembly in representation of particular districts.

Article III – Division of Powers

Article III only has a single section, and it confirms the principle of separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Concentration of power into any one body was a major concern of Thomas Jefferson, so, unlike the U.S. federal Constitution, the Virginia Constitution explicitly provides that no branch may exercise powers that properly belong to the others.[32] Separation between the branches of government is also listed as a right of the people in §5 of Article I.

Article IV – Legislature

Article IV establishes the basic structure and authority of the Virginia legislature. The legislative power of the state is vested in the Virginia General Assembly, which consists of the Virginia Senate and the Virginia House of Delegates. §17 of Article IV gives the legislature the power to impeach members of the executive and judicial branches.

The original §14 of Article IV forbade the incorporation of churches, though the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Revision, in its 1969 report, had recognized that the prohibition was probably invalid. The federal district court for the Western District of Virginia ruled in April 2002 that this provision of the Virginia Constitution was in fact unconstitutional, because it violates the federal constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.[33] The court found that it is unconstitutional to deny a church the option to incorporate under state law when other groups can incorporate.[34] An amendment striking the ban on church incorporation was approved by Virginia voters in November 2006.

Article V – Executive

The fifth Article similarly defines the structure and powers of the executive branch. The Governor of Virginia is invested as the chief executive, though §1 of Article V, provides that the Governor may not run for successive terms. The offices of Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General are established as supporting elected constitutional positions.

The constitutional powers of the Governor include the ability to sign legislation, veto bills (which veto may then be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses of the assembly), and issue pardons.

Article VI – Judiciary

Article VI vests judicial power in the Supreme Court of Virginia, along with the subordinate courts created by the General Assembly. Judges are appointed by a majority vote in the General Assembly to terms of 12 years for Supreme Court Justices and 8 years for other judges. The Supreme Court, pursuant to §5, has the authority to make rules governing the practice of law and procedures in the courts of the commonwealth (see rules), and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is established as the administrative head of the Virginia judicial system.

Article VII – Local Government

Article VII of the Constitution sets up the basic framework for the structure and function of local government in Virginia. Local government may be established at the town (population over 1000), city (population over 5000), county or regional government level. Article VII gives the General Assembly the power to create general laws for the organization and governing of these political subdivisions, except that regional governments cannot be created without the consent of the majority of the voters in the region.

Section 4 establishes the constitutional offices of treasurer, sheriff, Commonwealth's Attorney, clerk of court and Commissioner of the Revenue to be elected within each city and county in Virginia.

Article VIII – Education

A compulsory and free primary and secondary public education for every Virginia child is the focus of Article VIII. The General Assembly is empowered to determine the funding for the educational system and apportion the cost between state and local government. A state Board of Education is established to create school divisions and effectuate the overall educational policies. Actual supervision of the individual schools is delegated to local school boards, provided for in §7.

Article IX – Corporations

The primary purpose of Article IX is to create the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which is charged with administering the laws that regulate corporations. The State Corporation Commission also issues charters for Virginia corporations and licenses to do business for “foreign” (non-Virginia) corporations. Section 5 of Article IX prohibits such foreign corporations from doing anything in Virginia that a Virginia corporation could not do.

Article X – Taxation and Finance

Article X establishes the basic structure for taxation of personal property in Virginia. Pursuant to this Article, all non-exempt real and personal property is subject to taxation at its fair market value. Section 6 sets out a lengthy list of exempt property, which includes church property, cemeteries, and non-profit school property.

Significant additions to Article X include §7, a budget amendment, which became effective in 1986, and §7-A, which establishes the "Lottery Proceeds Fund", requiring that all proceeds from the lottery be set aside for educational purposes.

Article XI – Conservation

Article XI states that it is the general policy of the Commonwealth to preserve, protect and conserve the state’s natural and historic resources. The General Assembly is permitted to further these policies by entering into public-private partnerships or partnerships with federal agencies.

A 2001 amendment added §4, which establishes hunting and fishing as constitutional rights of Virginians, though the legislature may enact appropriate regulations and restrictions on these rights.

Article XII – Future changes

The last Article creates the mechanism for future changes to the Constitution. Any amendment to the Constitution must first be passed by a majority in each of the two legislative houses. The proposed amendment must then be held over for consideration by the succeeding elected legislature, where it must again be passed by a majority in each house. The amendment then goes on the general ballot and becomes enacted into the Constitution if approved by a majority of the voters.

Alternatively, a two-thirds majority of both Virginia houses may call for the creation of a constitutional convention. Any revisions or amendments proposed by the constitutional convention are presented to the citizens of Virginia and become law upon approval by a majority of voters.


  1. ^ a b Lieberman, Jethro (1987). The Enduring Constitution: A Bicentennial Perspective. West Publishing Co.. pp. 27–28. ISBN 0314320253. 
  2. ^ ""ONE OF THE MOST INTRIGUING MIGHT-HAVE-BEENS IN AMERICAN HISTORY"". Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Retrieved 2011-10-3. 
  3. ^ Schwartz, Stephan A. (May, 2000). "George Mason : Forgotten Founder, He Conceived the Bill of Rights". Smithsonian (31.2): 142. 
  4. ^ a b Dabney, Virginius (1971). Virginia, The New Dominion. University Press of Virginia. pp. 213–216. ISBN 0-8139-1015-3. 
  5. ^ "1830 Virginia Constitution". West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Retrieved 2006-09-12. 
  6. ^ "The Story of Virginia; Becoming Southerners". Virginia Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-09-12. 
  7. ^ Dabney (1971), p.218.
  8. ^ Wilentz, Sean (2005). The Rise of American Democracy, Jefferson to Lincoln. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 587–588. ISBN 0-393-05820-4. 
  9. ^ "Constitution of 1851". West Virginia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2006-09-12. 
  10. ^ Salmon (1994), pp.45–47.
  11. ^ a b "Cyclopaedia of Political Science; Virginia". Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved 2006-09-12. 
  12. ^ "Constitution of Virginia; Foreword" (PDF). Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved 2006-09-13. 
  13. ^ a b Morgan, Lynda (1992). Emancipation in Virginia's Tobacco Belt, 1850–1870. University of Georgia Press. pp. 160–166. ISBN 0-8203-1415-3. 
  14. ^ Salmon (1994), p.52.
  15. ^ "Views of a Changing Landscape; Historical Background for Sudley Post Office". University of Maryland. Retrieved 2006-09-14. 
  16. ^ Moger, Allen (1968). Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925. University Press of Virginia. pp. 181–183. ISBN 0813901820. OCLC 435376. 
  17. ^ "Virginia's Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902". Virginia Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-09-14. 
  18. ^ Dabney (1971), pp.436–437.
  19. ^ Maddex, Robert (1998). State Constitutions of the United States. Congressional Quarterly, Inc. pp. 406. ISBN 1568023731. 
  20. ^ Moger (1968), pp.192–200.
  21. ^ Dabney (1971), pp.439–440.
  22. ^ Salmon (1994), pp.78–79.
  23. ^ "Register of the Papers of A.E.Dick Howard for the Virginia Commission for Constitutional Revision; 1969–71". University of Virginia. Archived from the original on August 29, 2006. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  24. ^ Article and section references are to the articles and sections of the Constitution of Virginia (1971, as amended). Commonwealth of Virginia. 
  25. ^ Nobrega v. Commonwealth, 271 Va 508 (2006).
  26. ^ Virginia Code Commission (2008). Code of Virginia, 1950: Constitutions. Matthew Bender & Company. p. 122. ISBN 978-1-4224-5072-7. 
  27. ^ Op. Atty. Gen., Opinion No. 06-003 (Sept. 14, 2006), 2006 WL 4286442
  28. ^ Virginia Code Commission (2008), p. 127.
  29. ^ Perry v. Beamer, 933 F. Supp. 556 (1996).
  30. ^ Moore v. Pullem, 150 S.E. 415 (1928).
  31. ^ Gwaltmey v. Lyons, 166 Va. 872 (1914).
  32. ^ Maddex (1998), p. 407.
  33. ^ Falwell v. Miller, 203 F. Supp.2d 624 (W.D. Va. 2002).
  34. ^ "Proposed Constitutional Amendment; Ballot Question Number 2" (PDF). Virginia State Board of Elections. Retrieved 2006-10-31. 
  • Salmon, Emily; Edward D.C. Campbell, Jr. (1994). The Hornbook of Virginia History. The Library of Virginia. ISBN 0-88490-177-7. 

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