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
- 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
In calling for the creation of a study
commission, the report notes that since 1914 state officials have created five
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
The committee’s full report is available at www.nysba.org/nysconstitutionreport.
To view video excerpts of the Nov. 7, 2015 House of Delegates
discussion, go to https://youtu.be/5f_sIjGqMb4.
For background about the State Bar’s
Committee on the NYS Constitution, go to www.nysba.org/NYSConstitutionReviewCommittee.
The 74,000-member New York State Bar
Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It
was founded in 1876.
Contact: Lise Bang-Jensen
Director, Media Services and Public Affairs