Lawmakers, St. Paul police chief push to remove slavery reference to MN Constitution

MN lawmakers and St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell at a Feb. 20 press conference announcing an effort to remove slavery reference from MN Constitution // Courtesy of the Minnesota Senate Media Services

Despite being banned since statehood in 1858, the Minnesota Constitution still contains outdated permissive language regarding slavery. Article I, Section 2 of the Minnesota Constitution reads, in part: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.”

Today at the State Capitol, Minnesota lawmakers and St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell announced a proposed amendment to remove the clause “otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted” from the state constitution.

 “Our state constitution should reflect our values. In Minnesota, it’s inappropriate that language mentioning slavery still exists in our constitution, even if it’s narrowly constructed and obsolete,” said Rep. John Lesch (DFL – Saint Paul), chief author of the amendment in the Minnesota House.

Rep. Lesch was inspired to act by a New Year’s Eve Facebook post by Chief Axtell, who shared a desire to have this language eliminated:

“Slavery is not a Minnesota value, and I’ve been troubled by this clause for some time,” said Chief Axtell. “It’s 2020—beyond time for all Minnesotans to move forward together to ensure that our constitution reflects our shared values of equity, equality, freedom and respect for all people. I’m heartened by the effort of our elected leaders to amend the constitution and will do anything I can to support it.”

In the Minnesota Senate, the legislation is chief authored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL – Minneapolis). “I’m convinced that our God-given life has value and therefore, we must make certain that no one is devalued by our written or spoken words or deeds,” Sen. Champion said. “Our shared future should be based on correcting the past as we all strive for and build a bright and promising future for our children and grandchildren. So, we, the people, must make sure that the Minnesota Constitution reflects our shared belief in the value of all human life and delete any language to the contrary.”

In 2018, Colorado voters removed a similar clause from that state’s constitution, with 65 percent approving the measure. The 13th amendment to the United States Constitution – which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—contains similar language to that contained in the Minnesota Constitution which lawmakers are looking to remove.

“The Emancipation Proclamation was issued 157 years ago, but Black Americans still carry multigenerational trauma from that dark period in our nation’s early history,” said Rep. Rena Moran (DFL – Saint Paul), a great-great-granddaughter of slaves.

“Our effort also affords us a chance to recognize the deep disparities that still exist in our state, especially within the criminal justice system. This language has no place in our constitution—period, and I’m committed to ensuring Minnesotans will get to weigh in on the ballot this November.”

The legislation is designated HF 3008 in the House and SF 2974 in the Senate. If approved by both chambers this legislative session, the question would be submitted to voters in the 2020 General Election in November. The amendment would ultimately become effective if approved by a majority of those voting.

—Information provided by the City of Saint Paul