Stephen Gottlieb: Against A New Constitutional Convention For New York State

Oct 31, 2017

In a week, we will be voting to decide whether to call a constitutional convention for the State of New York. The powers of the Convention would be wide open. Before going further, it is important to look at the provisions for calling the Convention:

in case a majority of the electors voting thereon shall decide in favor of a convention … the electors of every senate district of the state … shall elect three delegates at the next … general election, and the electors of the state voting at the same election shall elect fifteen delegates-at-large.[i]

Let me repeat one crucial phrase, “the electors of every senate district of the state.” The New York Senate as we all know has been gerrymandered for many years to maximize Republican control of the Senate. Although the increasingly blue hue of our state politics has forced them into coalition with the so-called Independent Democrats, the NY Senate remains much more conservative than the Assembly, and not fairly representative of the people of the State. Everyone should be represented. Everyone’s ideas count. But everyone should be represented fairly and their ideas should be considered by a body that represents us fairly. Since the Convention would be shaped only by senatorial districts plus a few delegates chosen at large, I would not be willing to trust our future as a state to such a body.

You may have repeatedly heard me talk about gerrymandering. Many of us who have been fighting gerrymandering for years have continued to fight it regardless of who is the temporary beneficiary. Republicans should not have to accept a convention gerrymandered toward Democrats any more than Democrats should have to accept a convention gerrymandered toward Republicans, as it is now. Frankly, that alone determines my vote. End gerrymandering first and than we can talk about constitutional change.

The current New York State Constitution was adopted in 1938.[ii] In other words it was adoped near the end of the Great Depression. As such it had important provisions with the great mass of us in mind, not just the one-tenth of one percent who often think everything should favor them. That too makes it important to protect this Constitution. Of course it is not perfect. And when we get rid of gerrymandering, we may be able to fix it. But now losing this Constitution would be too dangerous.

Moreover, much that is wrong with this Constitution has nothing to do with its language and everything to do with the interpretation of the Courts. Just as I would not jettison the U.S. Constitution because of Scalia’s misreadings, so I would not jettison the 1938 New York Constitution because the courts screwed it up.

To the extent that some people believe some provisions could be improved, it would be sufficient to propose those specific improvements to the people of this state without using them as a Trojan Horse to threaten the entire document.

If any more reasons are needed, there is no reason to believe the delegates will be a step up from the legislature which already has the power to propose amendments. And I would be much more comfortable if the powers of any convention elected to revise the Constitution were limited to matters carefully defined in advance so that we could know how large a threat they pose.

So I'm going to vote 'no' on Election Day. 

[i] NY Const., Art. XIX, §2.

[ii] https://www.dos.ny.gov/info/constitution.htm . 

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School. A widely recognized constitutional scholar, he has served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics.

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