Vol. 29 No. 5 (May 2019) pp. 50-52

STATE CONSTITUTIONAL POLITICS: GOVERNING BY AMENDMENT IN THE AMERICAN STATES, by John Dinan. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 396 pp. Paper $35.00. ISBN: 9780226532813.

Reviewed by Staci L. Beavers, Department of Political Science, California State University San Marcos. Email: 

John Dinan’s STATE CONSTITUTIONAL POLITICS: GOVERNING BY AMENDMENT IN THE AMERICAN STATES provides a sweeping overview of the landscape of state constitutional revision through the amendment processes available to all 50 states. Spanning U.S. history and encompassing a wide breadth of institutional and policy areas, Dinan “categorize[s] and catalog[s] the ways amendments have served as instruments of governance throughout American history” (p. 3).

Dinan’s work as a political scientist in the realm of state constitutional development is already extensive and well-known. In addition to numerous law review articles in the subfield, an earlier book published in 2006 provided a comprehensive examination of “more than 230 state constitutional conventions held since 1776” (p. 7). In STATE CONSTITUTIONAL POLITICS, Dinan now provides updates on formal state constitutional changes for the annual THE BOOK OF THE STATES. With this book, Dinan tackles a host of state-level constitutional amendments across generations.

Chapter 1 sets the stage with an overview of the both the mechanisms available for formally amending state constitutions and the rate at which the states do so. Chapter 8 closes the volume with Dinan’s final assessment of the effects of pursuing amendments as the method of choice for seeking policy or institutional changes rather than legislative statutes or judicial rulings.

Chapters 2-7 provide Dinan’s cataloging of an array of constitutional changes from the Founding era to the present. The amendments included range from “institutional authority amendments” that typically shift legislative powers to other bodies (Chapter 2) to amendments that revise the status of various rights (Chapter 3) to those that attempt to counter or stave off judicial rulings (Chapter 4). Later chapters discuss amendments that proscribe and authorize various powers, particularly in the realm of taxing and spending (Chapters 5 and 6, respectively), while Chapter 7 covers amendments that establish policies outright (Chapter 7). Although the reader could quibble with Dinan’s classification scheme, his organizational criteria are clear and hold together.

Each chapter’s discussion of a category of amendments follows the same playbook: Dinan notes the federal Constitution’s minimal comparable formal revisions as a point of contrast for the vastly more dynamic language and provisions of the states’ constitutions; he identifies a host of amendments within the chapter’s category, often describing periodic waves of state-level change over time; he discusses a range of impetuses that likely inspired such amendments’ introduction and passage (or sometimes failure); and he assesses why amendments rather than other mechanisms of governance such as judicial rulings or legislative statutes were likely pursued as the vehicle for securing the policy or institutional objective at stake.

For example, Chapter 2’s discussion of “Institutional-Authority Amendments” details the rise of amendments that have shifted power away from legislatures to local governments or other institutional actors. After first noting the lack of comparable federal constitutional amendments, the chapter explains the origin story of “home rule” amendments that increase the autonomy of local governments and also contextualizes the creation of a seemingly endless array of state regulatory agencies and [*51] commissions. Further, he discusses a set of amendments that have re-routed significant budget-making authority from legislatures to governors and other executive-branch actors. Overwhelmingly, Dinan characterizes such amendments as a result of distrust of legislators, past the point of anger at individuals or even cohorts of legislators to be tossed out of office but rather a more overriding skepticism of legislators as a whole. Formalizing such power shifts through explicit constitutional language allows the state to work around legislative incompetence or venality and makes it difficult for future legislators to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Among the book’s most significant contributions is its ability to bring a breadth of both subject matter and jurisdictions together with invaluable historical perspective. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the array of revenue, spending, and borrowing amendments discussed most specifically across Chapters 5 and 6. While Chapter 5 includes attention to a succession of financial crises that inspired 19th-century amendments such as those banning state-sponsored lotteries, infrastructure spending, and debt, Chapter 6 reviews infrastructure needs and other pressures that led to 20th century amendments specifically creating new lotteries and an array of other revenue and bond measures. Further, establishing many of today’s state-level social safety-net programs required a host of state-level constitutional amendments to undo constitutional strictures imposed by prior generations’ amendments. As Dinan states the matter, “one generation limited state legislatures’ ability to pass certain policies…[and] later generations…sought to enact policies in the face of these constraints,” often via new amendments (p. 189). While tensions between taxing and spending continue today, seeing these competing ideas play out and often come full circle over time provides helpful perspective on contemporary debates.

At times I wondered about Dinan’s intended audience. While he notes a desire to reach both scholars of comparative constitutionalism and “constitution makers” (p. 4), it is not readily apparent how much those prospective audiences actually overlap. Further, many readers in both of these camps, and surely undergraduate political science students in states with significant initiative and referendum activity, will probably be unsurprised by Dinan’s stated objectives of demonstrating that “state constitutional amendments are a regular instrument for bringing about changes in governance” (pp. 279-280) and “that regular passage of amendments….can be attributed to the flexibility of state amendment rules as well as a constitutional culture that tolerates and even encourages frequent amending” (p. 3). However, while the depth and breadth of coverage will likely make this book a non-starter for most undergraduates, both scholars and practitioners could benefit from the wealth of historical and cross-state context that Dinan brings to bear. Students of comparative constitutionalism will likely appreciate Dinan’s approach to classifying amendments and scholars in this and other fields who are looking to test models of cross-state policy or institutional change could mine Dinan’s pages for a wealth of historical and contemporary issue areas to examine. For practitioners, seeing trends in constitutional change play out across many decades could be particularly useful. Practitioners might even find themselves occasionally surprised at how many of their “new” ideas have been tried before in their own states or elsewhere.

As broadly as this work sweeps, a few notable gaps could frustrate some readers. Dinan notes and explains several such omissions explicitly, directing those interested in matters such as state-level direct democracy mechanisms or changes to state judicial selection to works by other scholars. Likewise, Chapter 3 notes that amendments on voting rights and “positive rights” such as education have already been covered extensively by others (p. 74). On the other hand, while Dinan also notes the exclusion of freedom of the press and “right to farm” amendments from Chapter 3’s analysis, he never makes clear why he left them out of his analysis (p. 106).

One thought on presentation: Chapter 1 provides several helpful tables that clearly and [*52] concisely present extensive data. Later chapters could also have benefitted from the simplicity and clarity of tabular presentations of information, particularly where Dinan discusses popular amendments such as those legalizing marijuana and protecting gun rights, or those entrenching property rights after the U.S. Supreme Court’s KELO v. CITY OF NEW LONDON (2005) decision. Instead, the reader may spend quite a bit of time shuffling back and forth between the text and the book’s endnotes (and even possibly making his/her own tables) in an effort to track various players and final scores.

But none of these small criticisms should divert readers away from the conclusion that Dinan has presented a comprehensive work that can benefit both scholars of constitutions and many practitioners interested in formal state constitutional revisions. The book’s historical perspective alone makes it worth a careful read by those in both of these groups as well as those interested in state politics more generally.


KELO V. CITY OF NEW LONDON, 545 U.S. 469 (2005).


Dinan, John. 2006. THE AMERICAN STATE CONSTITUTIONAL TRADITION. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.

© Copyright 2019 by author, Staci L. Beavers.