Commentary

Legislative madness peaks as lawmakers move to endorse call for national constitutional convention (Updated)

[UPDATED: In a rare moment of sanity in the 2017 session, this proposal was defeated on the House floor by a vote of 59-53. Several hours later, however, lawmakers resurrected the bill and sent it back to the House Rules Committee. It remains to be seen what will happen next. ]

State lawmakers are looking to wind up the 2017 session this week and, as has been the case in recent years in particular, that means great and potentially destructive mischief is afoot. A classic case in point can be found in a loony, ALEC-supported proposal that sits on the House calendar today. Senate Joint Resolution 36 would cause North Carolina to formally endorse a movement hatched on the right-wing fringe to call a national constitutional convention. The last and only such prior event took place in 1787 — you know, the one with Washington, Madison, Hamilton et al.

There are an array of reasons to be gravely concerned about promoting such an effort. As the policy wonks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained earlier this year, while supporters of the idea may think they can limit the matters such a convention could consider, they’re likely wrong. Among the frightening possibilities they raise:

  • Once called, a convention could write its own rules.
  • A convention could set its own agenda, possibly influenced by powerful interest groups.
  • A convention could choose a new ratification process.
  • No other body, including the courts, has clear authority over a convention.
  • States’ ability to control a convention is highly questionable.

The post concludes this way:

“States should be deeply skeptical of claims by ALEC and others that states will control the operations and outcome of a convention called under the Constitution’s Article V. Fundamental questions about how a convention would work remain unresolved. A convention likely would be extremely contentious and politicized, with results impossible to predict.

Further, nothing could prevent a convention from emulating the only previous convention — the one in 1787 — by going beyond its original mandate, proposing unforeseen changes to the Constitution, and even altering the ratification rules. Some states might challenge the actions of their delegates, but with the courts unlikely to intervene, these efforts would likely fail.

States would be prudent to avoid these risks and reject resolutions calling for a constitutional convention. States that have already approved such resolutions would be wise to rescind them.”

This conclusion comports with the opinions of some of North Carolina’s top constitutional scholars. This is from a February story by NC Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian:

“’I think this is playing with fire,’ said William Marshall, the Kenan Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.

Marshall is a former Solicitor General of Ohio and was Deputy White House Counsel and Deputy Assistant to the President during the Clinton administration. He said the reality of today’s politics is very different from that of 1787 – and a constitutional convention in the current atmosphere could be disastrous.

‘In 1787 you had people coming together without strong ideological positions – partially because we didn’t have political parties yet,’ Marshall said. ‘They had the interest of the country rather than their own partisan political interests in mind. Today things are very different – both sides are engaged in trench warfare and both parties are willing to take positions and use tactics they were condemning an hour earlier.’

That’s the wrong atmosphere in which to adopt amendments to the constitution, Marshall said.

‘You also have to consider that the country is now very different – the way the states relate to one another is very different,’ Marshall said. ‘The states are much more interdependent than they were in 1787. Giving states the authority to ignore environmental laws, for instance, doesn’t make sense when some states create the pollution and other states end up suffering the consequences.’

Ernest Young of Duke University School of Law said he agrees with that.

One of the country’s leading authorities on federalism, Young teaches constitutional law, federal courts and foreign relations law.

One of the dangers of such a convention is that virtually anything can happen once one is called, Young said.

‘How do you control the actions of the delegates?’ Young said. ‘That scares the hell out of people. Because whatever changes people might favor, people are mostly happy with the constitution.’”

The bottom line: This idea needs to go away. Last weekend’s editorial in the Charlotte Observer put it this way:

“…the convention would be limited to an enormous Pandora’s Box of mischief.

America hasn’t held a constitutional convention since 1787. Given the quality of the statesmen we have today compared with then, and given the dangerous polarization that marks the United States today, calling one now could spiral into unknown territory and is an exceedingly bad idea.”

One Comment


  1. Gina S. Bryant

    June 30, 2017 at 9:49 am

    Greed, not care for your fellow people or constituents is what is driving today’s political scene. It is very saddening and worrisome to feel that your future is in danger of falling all around you, that all of the struggles of trying to recover from 2009-2010 economic downturn will only see you worse off than before.

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