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Bess v. Ulmer

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Bess v. Ulmer was decided in 1999 by the Alaska Supreme Court. The case was about three different ballot propositions and whether or not they met the state's standards in its laws governing constitutional amendments for what is and isn't allowable in a ballot proposition. Each of the three ballot propositions that were at the center of the case were legislatively-referred constitutional amendments, not citizen-initiated measures.

The case was an appeal from a decision of K. Tan, a judge for the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District.

The three ballot propositions related to:

  • Prisoner's rights (Legislative Resolve No. 59). This measure would have restricted the rights of Alaska prisoners to those guaranteed by the federal constitution).
  • Marriage (Legislative Resolve No. 71). The Alaska Marriage Amendment had as its goal to limit marriage to the union of one man and one woman.
  • Reapportionment (Legislative Resolve No. 74). This measure transferred the power of reapportionment from the Executive branch to a

Redistricting Board.

The Supreme Court decided that the ballot measure about prisoner's rights was a revision and ordered that it not appear on the ballot. The marriage question was allowed to stay on the ballot, with revisions. The reapportionment measure was allowed on the ballot with no revisions from the court.


The plaintiffs were Howard Bess, Darlene Bess, Jay Brause and Gene Dugan. The defendant was Fran Ulmer, the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska in her official capacity.

The Alaska legislature and Elizabeth Dood joined the lawsuit against Ulmer.

The plaintiffs challenged the three ballot propositions on the grounds that the propositions amounted to "revisions" and not "amendments" and further claiming that "revisions" can only be accomplished through a constitutional convention.

Amendment versus revision

The legal issue at the heart of the case was whether the ballot propositions were "amendments" or "revisions" of Alaska's constitution. The reason this mattered is that:

  • "Amending" the constitution, according to the constitution itself, is done when a proposed change to the constitution is passed by a two-thirds

vote of each house of the Alaska State Legislature, placed on a statewide ballot, and subsequently approved by a majority of those voting.

  • "Revising" the constitution, according to the constitution itself in Article XIII, is a more substantial, far-reaching change of the constitution, and can only be accomplished through a constitutional convention.

But how was the court to decide whether the three contested ballot propositions were amendments or revisions?

In its opinion, the court laid out a definition of a "revision" and wrote of its hope that this definition would guide future understanding in the state about how to distinguish between an amendment and a revision. The definition the court settled on for a "revision" was a revision "is a change which alters the substance and integrity of our Constitution in a manner measured both qualitatively and quantitatively."

State distinctions

States that explicitly distinguish between amendments and revisions include:

  • Florida.
  • California.

External links