Constitutional Convention records speak for themselves

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In response to Steve Brown’s attack on Rhode Island’s 1986 constitutional convention (see Constitutional convention: The General Assembly’s kid brother), we’d like to note that eminent Rhode Island historians disagree with his historical assessment. Pat Conley, Rhode Island’s historian laureate, has summarized the convention’s contribution as “highly productive,” including the integration of the 44 amendments added to Rhode Island’s 1843 Constitution into a concise, streamlined rewrite. If having a readable constitution is one of the most important political rights a people can have, the 1986 rewrite greatly contributed to Rhode Island’s democracy.

In addition to the rewrite, the 1986 Convention proposed seven amendments the voters approved, including creation of an ethics commission, expanded environmental protections and enhanced powers for the governor. Brown mentions none of these accomplishments, instead focusing on a proposal that was defeated 2-1 by the voters.

There is little that Brown says about the 1986 Convention that couldn’t also have been used to disparage the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 (see J.H. Snider’s satire, 1787: Vote No Against Convening a National Constitutional Convention). Indeed, opponents of that convention argued that constitutional changes should be proposed via the Continental Congress and that constitutional proposals should be ratified by state legislatures rather than state ratifying conventions. Supporters knew that would be the kiss of death for reforming the Articles of Confederation despite the fact that the state legislatures and state constitutional conventions were both popularly elected by similar means.

Moreover, the independent constitutional conventions that Rhode Island has convened have been among the highlights of the state’s political history and are symbolized by the prominent position of Thomas Dorr’s statue in Rhode Island’s State House. (Dorr was Rhode Island’s most famous advocate for a state constitutional convention and his battles with a recalcitrant legislature are taught today in high school history textbooks throughout the 50 U.S. states).

Among the achievements of constitutional conventions in Rhode Island history include a comprehensive bill of rights, removal of the real estate (property) requirement for native-born citizens to vote, voting rights for immigrants (notably Catholic and Irish), voting rights for the urban working class, voting rights for servicemen on active duty, elimination of anti-democratic constitutional amendment rules designed to entrench the power of past majorities (the rural, white, propertied classes who controlled the legislature), campaign finance disclosure rules, ethics rules to reduce political corruption, environmental protections, a relatively concise, logical, and readable constitution with embarrassing sexist and other archaisms deleted, and a procedure for calling a constitutional convention independent of the legislature.

Arguably as important has been the mere threat of convening a constitutional convention to get the legislature to pass democracy enhancing rules it had long opposed, including reducing the legislature’s ability to remove Supreme Court judges for political reasons (1994), enhancing separation of powers (2004) and eliminating the master lever (2014) – all done in years when the constitutional convention referendum was also on the ballot.

None of this is to say that state constitutional conventions have been perfect. But when it comes to restricting the rights Brown says he cares about, legislature initiated constitutional amendments have a far worse track record than constitutional convention initiated constitutional amendments. That’s the real comparison that is relevant.

The most powerful special interests fear constitutional conventions and provide the overwhelming majority of the money behind no campaigns because they know that constitutional convention politics are different from legislature politics: the special interests cannot so easily kill proposals opposed to their interests or slip bills through favorable to their interests. So no, a constitutional convention is not “The General Assembly’s kid brother.” If it were, there would be no statue of Thomas Dorr in the State House.

J.H. Snider and Beverly Clay edit RhodeIslandConCon.info.

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