Montana Constitution co-author Bob Campbell remembered

Tributes poured in Wednesday for Bob Campbell, who as a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention wrote the document’s provisions for the right to privacy and the right to a clean and healthy environment.

Campbell died Tuesday night in Missoula. He was 81 and died of natural causes after suffering from dementia.

He also co-authored with delegate Mae Nan Ellingson this widely praised preamble to the state Constitution:

“We the people of Montana are grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”

Jon Ellingson, a retired Missoula lawyer, praised the right to privacy that his close friend Campbell added to the Constitution. It reads: “The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed upon without the showing of a compelling state interest.”

Bob Campbell signs the proposed constitution on March 22, 1972, on the final day of the Constitutional Convention. With him is delegate Jean Bowman, who was elected fellow Con-Con secretary.

“That is so profound and has so many implications to public policy that I hope our court can flesh out in greater detail in the coming years,” Ellingson said “With the upcoming challenge to abortion rights, it is a bulwark against the infringement of a woman’s right to privacy to make her own decisions about her body.”

After initially failing, Campbell finally succeeded in placing the right to a clean and healthy environment in the Constitution.

“What an enduring legacy he’s left to the state,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Very few people get to have that level of impact on a state and its future. After the Anaconda Co. had had its way with the state of Montana, it was so important for the delegates to stand up for the environment and make it a fundamental right that we all benefit from.”

During the debate, Campbell contended that the environmental provision the majority had supported was too weak. He urged delegates to imagine walking down the streets of their hometowns and being asked by someone what they had done for the environment.

The constitutional convention transcript shows Campbell telling fellow delegates: “Under the majority proposal, you will have to look at them in the eye, knowing you spent all the money to come over here to do they were interested in, and say, ‘Yes, We the people in Montana at the convention decided to have one.’ What is he going to say? ‘You have decided to have an environment. Well, isn’t that wonderful. We already got one.”’”

After Campbell’s earlier attempt failed, Convention President Leo Graybill sent a note to Campbell at his desk urging him to try again. This time, late at night, it passed.

“No one loved the Montana Constitution and did more to promote its understanding than Bob Campbell.”

Constitutional Convention delegate Mae Nan Ellingson

Rick Applegate, who was the research staffer for the convention’s Bill of Rights Committee, said Campbell had a way of making people comfortable talking about these issues because of “one, his personality and two, the man was wicked smart.”

“He had a depth of understanding of those issues that helped him carry the day,” Applegate said.

For the next 50 years after the Montana Constitution was narrowly ratified by voters, Campbell became its leading promoter and advocate. He handed out hundreds, if not thousands, of copies of the Constitution, published by the secretary of state’s office, to students, legislators, seniors, people on the street and anyone else. He autographed all of them.

“The in which he advocated legendary and elevated ways the Constitution are and reflects his energy, his commitment and his creativity,” said Evan Barrett of Butte, a historian who serves on the executive committee of the Montana Constitutional Convention Celebration Committee.

“No one loved the Montana Constitution and did more to promote its understanding than Bob Campbell,” retired lawyer Mae Nan Ellingson said.

Campbell regularly spoke about the Constitution to school and university classes on Law Day.

Anthony Johnstone, a professor who teaches constitutional law at the University of Montana, recalled in his forthcoming book about the Montana Constitution meeting Campbell in a classroom convened in a truck trailer near Boulder.

“It was my first Law Day, with the Equal Protection Clause as our subject, and I did not know he would be my co-teacher until he showed up and started passing out signed copies of the Montana Constitution,” Johnstone wrote. “There was little for me to do but to sit back and hear Bob’s stories bring the convention to life for the students, the teacher, and me. Many times since, Bob has done the same in my classroom, and just like those Jefferson County High School students, the law students became quick fans of this unlikely constitutional superstar, lining up for autographs after class.”

Campbell was an early supporter of legalizing marijuana and defended some people arrested on drug charges.

Campbell also had a quirky side. He often roamed the halls of the Capitol and downtown Missoula and Helena distributing funny bumper stickers and buttons, copies of national political cartoons and phony $1 million bills. He organized debates at Bannack, Montana’s first territorial capital.

“Bob organized (forcefully enlisted) a group of us to debate every summer at Bannack Days whether women should have the vote,” said former legislator Dorothy Bradley. “It was, of course, one of the most hilarious times we ever had. And, of course, the women always lost since we couldn’t vote — until the dance hall girls joined us and threatened the men.”

Robert J. Campbell was born Dec. 21, 1940, to James D. and Verna Beck Campbell in Sidney. After he high school in Sidney, received degrees in pharmacy in 1963 and law in 1967, both from the University of Montana. He used to hand out gag business cards that said, “For your pills, and wills, see Campbell.”

Campbell had a private law practice in Missoula and later worked in Helena on the legal staff of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and as a hearing officer for the state Workers’ Compensation Court. He returned to Missoula when he retired.

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He married Mary Ann Marsh in 1963. The couple later divorced. They had two children, TJ Campbell, senior client account manager for Class Action Capital of New York City, and Elizabeth Campbell, an associate professor of history at the University of Denver.

He had two grandchildren.

A memorial service is set for 2 pm June 17 at Garden City Funeral Home in Missoula. It will follow an event in the Capitol in Helena on June 15 and 16 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the Constitution.

Friends are hoping to raise money to establish at the University of Montana “For This and Future Generations” awards to be given annually for the best published student paper on the Montana Constitution. The first prize will be awarded in honor of Bob Campbell. The details are pending.

Editor’s note: Johnson covered Campbell at the 1972 Constitutional Convention.

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