In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison:
“Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”
Jefferson believed it was healthy for us open up the Constitution every generation and revise laws needing revision, possibly eliminating those no longer required. This way we could keep the document belonging to the people instead of it devolving into “an act of force.”
There are several ways to amend our Constitution. The first requires two-thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives to approve an amendment, and three-quarters of state legislatures to subsequently ratify it. All twenty-seven amendments in the Constitution exist today due to this, the only method employed since 1791.
There is a second method. If two-thirds of state legislatures call for a “constitutional convention,” we are required to hold one. At this convention, delegates would open up the Constitution and pull out provisions they feel we no longer need–and insert ones they feel we do.
In theory, a convention has the potential to enact positive change; however, in the wrong hands, a convention committee has the power to make disastrous alterations regarding our freedom of speech, voting rights, civil rights, and myriad other conditions. This unconventional method removes people’s voices from the legislative process, putting decisions we should be lobbying our elected officials for on a select faceless few.
In addition to the federal Constitution, each state has its own constitution susceptible to revision. This means individual states have the authority to rewrite their laws.
There are forty members of the Committee for a Constitutional Convention. Evan Davis is the group’s manager. He is an attorney at Clearly Gottlieb and served as president of the New York City Bar Association. He was also the Vice Chairman of Columbia University’s board of trustees. He said:
“We definitely want to help support the convention call with a campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. There are a number of changes that need to be made to strengthen the constitution that the Legislature is never going to adopt … so the only way to get these changes made is to get it through a convention where the people would elect delegates committed to making the changes.”
About those changes, Davis states:
“First on the list is ethics — putting ethics into the constitution, having an ethics agency that is really independent and not one like we have now where the party leaders appoint people and you have a voting requirement that requires a particular party’s nominee. The Legislature, we don’t believe will ever change that, so to have real ethics in Albany, you need to put it into the constitution and the people need to do it.”
Home rule reform and voting are additional topics delegates could likely address at a convention rather than through the typical legislative process.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo expressed reservations about a constitutional convention. During a meeting with the Daily News Editorial Board last month, Cuomo said:
“You have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that. The way it will work is you’ll probably elect assemblymen and senators as delegates. And the unions will probably fund the campaigns. And you may make the situation worse, not better.”
He told the Village Voice:
“Everyone says the old legislators will get in.”
Evan Davis said:
“Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a number of constitutional amendments, things like a full-time Legislature, things like same-day registration which is barred by the constitution now, things like term limits, he’s proposed amendments in all those areas. If the Legislature doesn’t initiate them, I think he would want to see them done through a convention.”
The last time the state publicly floated the idea of convention was 1997. Sixty-three percent of voters rejected it. Several groups that had a role in the opposition, such as the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the Conservative Party, have already come out against the referendum for this year. If successful this year, it would set a precedent for other, Republican-controlled, states.
Change can be good, and, like Jefferson wrote, we want to prevent our governing documents–and legislators who take oaths to protect them–from ruling us. If abused, a constitutional convention can produce a situation where our fundamental protections and social safety nets are carved away in favor of special interests. Union protections, collective bargaining agreements, public pensions, public education, minimum wage, are just a few elements a constitutional convention could seriously erode.
Featured image from YouTube video.