Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
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‘The Weight of the World Was Upon Them’
The Colorado Constitution’s physically impressive presentation in the Supreme Court Law Library mirrors the magnitude of the process required to craft it.
By JAMES CARLSON
The first thing you notice is not its words. It’s the size. The Colorado Constitution is big, its edges measuring more like a stone tablet than a sheet of legal parchment. And the script, you notice that second. Its lyrical lines scrawled across crinkled paper are the awe of master penmen.
“I love the thing,” says Dan Cordova standing over the large locked case holding the 39-page document at the back of the Colorado Supreme Court Law Library.
Cordova is the Supreme Court Librarian who one year ago worked with State Archives to bring the 135-year-old Constitution out to the public. The public can view it any time during the library’s regular business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at 1300 Broadway in downtown Denver.
Despite often calling the Constitution “the thing”— “meant in the most endearing way — Cordova also waxes poetic about it. And it’s not hard to see why. Its physically impressive presentation mirrors the magnitude of the process required to bring it about.
“Shameless plug: People should really come see it,” he says. “It’s the document that connects us to the rule of law, and it’s the document that we all share as Coloradoans.”
A Rocky Road
Many of the issues carved into the Constitution remain relevant today. How should a government tax its people? How should it fund education? Resolution of those questions within the constitution proved to be the easier part of Colorado becoming a state.
Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a proposed Constitution in 1865. But according to accounts from the time, Democratic President Andrew Johnson was sparring with a Republican-led House of Representatives that was trying to impeach the president. Colorado, and its majority of Republican Party members, would only have strengthened Congress’s hand against Johnson. So Johnson refused Colorado’s bid for statehood.
Congress pushed back, passing two Colorado statehood bills. Johnson vetoed both. In the middle of all this, in 1868, the House impeached Johnson. He was acquitted, and over the next six years Congress fails to pass another statehood bill.
Finally, in 1875, after then-President Ulysses S. Grant signaled a willingness to let Colorado in, Congress passed a statehood bill that, unusual for its time, said once voters of Colorado approved a Constitution, Colorado would become a state without further action by Congress. When Grant signed the bill, Colorado’s time had come.
In December 1875, 39 elected officers gathered in Denver as representatives of the territory’s 24 districts and spent 87 days crafting the Constitution. Many of them had helped draft other states’ constitutions. Four of the signatories would later become Colorado Supreme Court Justices.
By March, they had a document. On July 1, nearly 100 years to the day after America declared independence, Colorado voters approved the Constitution. The Centennial State was born. Cordova marvels at how Colorado took the fast track once its path to statehood was cleared. Because the vote didn’t occur in a vacuum. Candidates for national election were vying for Colorado’s attention. Businesses were jockeying for position in the soon-to-be new state.
“How did this happen in a compressed time in such a dynamic world,” Cordova wonders.
The Red Line
In the end, the document is also just that: a piece of paper. And it can be kind of a thrill to take in. The enormity of the pages impresses viewers as does the script, for which the penman was paid an entire month’s salary. Lines of text not extending to the end of the page are finished with a red line. It gives a sense of finality and signified to all who read it that any future alterations would have to be as formal amendments.
“The weight of the world was upon them,” Cordova said.
The original agreement between Cordova and State Archives was for the document to stay in the library until April. He has other plans. He recently sought and received an extension to keep the constitution on display. For how long?
“I’m not giving it up until I have to.”
James Carlson is the Information Resources Coordinator for the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.