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Official takes aim at Minnesota Constitution slavery mention

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota police chief said he wants to change state constitution to remove a pre-Civil War reference to slavery being an acceptable form of punishment.

Even though slavery has been illegal throughout the country for more than a century, St. Paul police Chief Todd Axtell wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday that his goal is to “ignite a movement” to have the reference dropped from the Minnesota Constitution.

“For some time now, I’ve been troubled by a clause in the Minnesota State Constitution. It involves the word slavery, which doesn’t reflect our state values.” Axtell said, referring to a section of the state constitution that reads: “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.”

It is “beyond time to move forward together and strike out slavery from our shared constitution,” he wrote.

The phrase is among the first sentences in the 14-article constitution that ushered Minnesota into statehood in 1858. It drew Axtell’s attention a few months ago when he read about other states confronting slavery passages in their constitutions.

Axtell’s campaign got off to a fast start. Minnesota Rep. John Lesch responded that he intends to draft a document to remove the slavery reference and give it a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

“Just the idea of having it be out there saying that slavery is OK when it’s used as a punishment, I think that’s problematic and we need to take it out,” said Lesch, who chairs the committee.

Although Axtell and Lesch are pushing to remove slavery references from the Minnesota Constitution, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, features similar language, stating that slavery is banned throughout the country, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Steve Linders, a spokesman for Axtell, said the chief “is focused on the state constitution but would support any effort that that helps ensure that the U.S. Constitution reflects our country’s shared values.”

Lesch said he hopes to see the document pass through the Legislature and appear on the 2020 general election ballot.

“There, the people of Minnesota make the decision about slavery in our constitution,” continued Lesch, who noted he “glossed over” the reference in previous readings. “It’s time to update our values document. 2020 is a good time for that.”

Lesch noted he would ask Sen. Warren Limmer to hold a hearing in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

“Slavery and involuntary servitude are obviously no longer relevant to our laws,” said Limmer, the committee’s chair. “I’m surprised this hasn’t come up before.”