The people of New York will decide in 2017 whether to hold a constitutional convention to examine if state government needs to be overhauled. In advance of that vote, the New York State Bar Association urges state officials to create a preparatory commission, as they have done in the past.
“Parts of the state Constitution predate the automobile, airplane and Internet. Although it has been amended multiple times, much of the current Constitution dates to conventions ratified in 1894 and 1938,” said State Bar Association President David P. Miranda. “A preparatory commission would provide citizens with impartial research on the issues covered in the Constitution prior to their vote.”
About six times longer than the U.S. Constitution, the New York State Constitution establishes the structure of state government and enumerates fundamental rights and liberties of individuals. It governs our courts, schools, local government structure, government finance and development in the Adirondacks, and affects the daily lives of New Yorkers.
The 2017 referendum is mandated by the state Constitution itself, as explained in a report of the State Bar Association’s Committee on the New York State Constitution.
“The state Legislature can propose amendments to the state Constitution, subject to voter approval. However, the framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that there was an even more direct way for the citizenry to review fundamental principles of governance. That is why at least once every 20 years New Yorkers get to decide for themselves whether to hold a Constitutional Convention,” the report says.
The report, which was approved by the Association’s House of Delegates November 7, offers several recommendations, including:
- “The state should establish a non-partisan preparatory Constitutional Convention commission as soon as possible.”
The report notes that it has been nearly 50 years since the state held a convention. “There are few living delegates from the last convention in 1967, and little, if any institutional memory on how to hold one. The hard, complex work of preparing for a vote and convention cannot begin too soon, it said.
- The commission should educate the public about the state Constitution and the process for changing it; make a comprehensive study of the Constitution and compile proposals for change and simplification; research how past conventions were conducted; and prepare impartial background materials for the 2017 voters—and for delegates—if a convention is held.
- The commission should have “a dedicated, full-time, expert staff.”
“The commission will face the daunting task not only of examining the substantive areas of the Constitution and related issues, but also surveying and educating the public, and helping to plan and prepare for a convention, if one is held.”
- The commission and its staff should be adequately funded by state government.
In calling for the creation of a study commission, the report notes that since 1914 state officials have created five such commissions.
“The Legislature created preparatory commissions for the 1915 Convention, the 1957 referendum and the 1967 Convention; governors established commissions for the 1938 Convention and the 1997 referendum,” the report says. “History teaches us that regardless of how a preparatory commission is formed, it requires the support of all branches of government to produce useful and comprehensive work product for the benefit of New York voters, lawmakers, interested groups, and delegates if a convention is held.”
The Association’s Committee on the New York State Constitution, which wrote the report, was created by President Miranda earlier this year. Its goal is to serve as a resource to the Association and public about issues relating to the 2017 referendum. It is chaired Henry M. Greenberg of Albany (Greenberg Traurig).
The committee’s full report is available at www.nysba.org/nysconstitutionreport.
The 74,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
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