Law Professors Talk About The “Ifs” Of Constitutional Convention
There are still a number of unanswered questions about what would happen if voters decided in favor of holding a constitutional convention, Professors Richard Kay and Justin Long told a small group of students gathered at the University of Connecticut Law School Thursday.
The legislature could appoint itself to sit as delegates to a constitutional convention, delegates could be elected like they were in 1965, the convention could be convened on a Tuesday and end on a Wednesday, or the legislature could allocate just $1 for the convention, Long said.
He said the notion that holding a constitutional convention would lead to citizen initiative or referendum is misleading because there are a number of things that must happen along the way.
If the legislature wants to preserve its power at the expense of the people it can structure a convention in way that preserves its power, Long said.
The legislature has to balance the risk and danger of a convention against the dissatisfaction the people feel with the existing arrangement, Kay said.
“How out, do the outs feel?” Kay added.
According to a University of Connecticut poll of 502 people released on Thursday
50 percent approve of a constitutional convention and 65 percent support amending the constitution to include citizen initiative.
Despite what supporters of the convention think, the legislature has a lot of control over a convention because it gets to decide how the delegates are picked, Long said.
In 1965 the delegates were chosen by party leaders then approved by the voters in a special election. The convention was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with 42 delegates from each party.
The only reason there was a convention held in 1965 was because a federal court decision forced it to reapportion the state legislature, Long said. It was also in 1965 that the state decided voters should be asked about whether the state should hold a constitutional convention every 20 years. In 1986 voters rejected a convention.
A constitution is the “will of the people,” Kay said. It changes over time through judicial interpretation, but those changes aren’t necessarily endorsed by the people, he said.
Of the states with some form of citizen initiative, all were approved through a constitutional convention, none were approved through the legislative process, Kay said.
There are two ways to amend the constitution. One is through the legislative process, which only 5 percent of voters in the poll knew, and the other is through a constitutional convention—a question about whether the state should hold a convention appears on the ballot every 20 years.
Amendments to the constitution may be proposed by any member of the General Assembly. If the amendment is approved by three-quarters of the General Assembly it will appear on the ballot for the November election in the next even number year. If a majority of the voters approve the amendment it becomes part of the constitution.
If the General Assembly approves an amendment by a simple majority it has to be approved again by the General Assembly in the following year before it appears on the ballot.
So how scared should voters be of a constitutional convention?
“Who knows,” Kay said.
He said once a constitutional convention is convened the delegates could rewrite the entire constitution or abolish the bill of rights.
“The question is what are risks and which are we more afraid of, the convention or the status quo?” Kay said.
Kay seemed surprised by the results of the Thursday’s UConn poll. When asked to predict what happens on Tuesday he said “I gotta think it’s gonna lose. This is the land of steady habits.”