The Famous Case of Coleman v. Miller—and, No, It Doesn’t Give Congress Total Control Over the Amendment Process
Not long ago, I was listening to a radio talk show and was assured by a caller that the Supreme Court, in the case of Coleman v. Miller, had delegated all important decisions over the amendment process to Congress. In other words, the caller said, Congress can make all decisions on every amendment issue: how states apply for a convention, how the convention conducts its business, whether amendments are ratified, etc., etc. Neither the states nor the courts would have anything to say about it.
Interesting assertion. Problem is, it’s not true.
The Supreme Court decided Coleman v. Miller in 1939. The case arose from a dispute over whether the Kansas legislature had properly ratified a proposed amendment to grant Congress authority over child labor. (All states banned child labor, but their laws were inconsistent.) The amendment had been pending for over 13 years, and the Kansas legislature earlier had rejected it.
So one question was whether Kansas could ratify an amendment after its earlier rejection. Another was whether Kansas could ratify an amendment 13 years after it was proposed. Still another was whether the lieutenant governor should have been allowed to cast a vote in an evenly-divided state senate. And there also was an issue of whether the plaintiffs had standing.
The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the ratification, and all those issues went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion was written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, an old-line progressive with a sterling legal reputation. This is how he ruled:
* The plaintiffs had standing.
* Apparently because the Supreme Court justices were evenly divided (one justice may not have participated) on whether they could consider the lieutenant governor issue, the Kansas court’s judgment upholding the lieutenant governor’s vote was sustained.
* Historical practice had been to leave to Congress the decision of whether a state ratification was valid if the same state had earlier (or later) rejected it.
* There was no way the Court could judge how long a proposed amendment might last. That was a judgment for Congress to make—by, for example, inserting a time limit in its original proposal.
The case certainly does not hold that Congress has complete control of the amendment process. I’ll address below where that misconception came from.
Two holdings in Coleman v. Miller were particularly notable, but only one remains important today. The Court’s rulling that it couldn’t judge how long a proposed amendment lasted is no longer relevant. That’s because America agreed in 1992 that proposed amendments lasted forever, unless they were withdrawn. We so agreed when we ratified the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which Congress had proposed in 1789, more than two centuries earlier.
The part of the Coleman case still important today is its holding that courts interpret Article V in light of history. It was history that told the Court that Congress could resolve the conflict between a state’s ratification and its rejection. In this respect, though, Coleman is not unique: Both before and since, many judicial decisions have followed history in interpreting Article V.
Coleman also seems to clarify (although not entirely) that when Congress imposes a time limit on ratifying an amendment it proposes, Congress can do so because the time limit is part of its proposal. In other words, Congress’s authority to impose time limits doesn’t come from its prerogative to choose between the state convention and state legislative “modes of ratification,” as an earlier case had decided. It comes from its authority to propose. The implication is this: Although Congress can time-limit its own proposed amendments, it cannot impose time limits on an amendment proposed by an amendments convention.
Two justices dissented from the Court’s holding. They argued that the Child Labor Amendment proposal had expired. Four others concurred in the result, arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing.
There was another concurring opinion, too—this one written by Justice Hugo Black for himself and three colleagues. He claimed Congress enjoyed complete control over the amendment process and the courts had no power to review any of Congress’s decisions on that process. That’s where the misunderstanding about Coleman started. The notion that everything should be left to Congress did not come from the Court’s holding, but from the views of a minority.
Of course, anyone who reads Article V knows that the Black position was nonsense. Not surprisingly, subsequent court cases have rejected it repeatedly.
So why did Black make such a claim?
In 1939, the Court was entering the time period in which it was probably more deferential to Congress and the President than at any other time in our history. (Just five years later, Black was to write the Court’s decision in Korematsu v. U.S., deferring to the decision of Congress and the President to herd tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese dissent into concentration camps.)
Everyone knew that FDR had been considering constitutional amendments, and that he had the support of strong majorities in Congress. Black, who until recently had been a U.S. Senator closely allied to FDR, was still more of a politician than a jurist. Allies of FDR—such as Black and two of the other justices who joined his opinion—may have wanted to emphasize congressional control over the amendment process.
Such notions of extreme judicial deference to Congress are long gone. I doubt that the Black opinion would garner the support of even one Supreme Court justice today.
A few days ago I heard a presentation by a spokesman for a group that claims to defend the Constitution and revere the Founders. Yet the spokesman trashed the Constitution’s framers for allegedly exceeding their authority and claimed they added a provision that largely rendered another provision useless. In other words, the spokesman charged the framers with being both (1) dishonorable and (2) incompetent.
The framers inserted the “Convention for proposing Amendments” in the Constitution to provide the states with a way of obtaining constitutional amendments without federal interference. Tench Coxe, a leading advocate for the Constitution during the ratification debates, pointed out that the convention device allows the states to obtain whatever amendments they choose “although the President, Senate and Federal House of Representatives, should be unanimously opposed to each and all of them.” (Italics in original.)
The spokesman, however, asserted that the Constitution allowed Congress, through the Necessary and Proper Clause, to dictate, either in the convention call or by previous legislation, how an amendments convention is structured and how commissioners (delegates) are selected and apportioned.
The claim that Congress can use the Necessary and Proper Clause to structure the convention was first advanced in the 1960s, and has been repeated numerous times since then. A Congressional Research Service report published earlier this year noted that some in Congress have taken the same line, although the report did not actually endorse it.
But pause to consider: Why would the framers place in the Constitution a method by which Congress could largely control a convention created to bypass Congress? Were that framers that stupid?
Of course not. Most of them were highly experienced and extremely deft legal drafters.
Behind the belief that the Necessary and Proper Clause empowers Congress to structure the convention are three distinct assumptions—all erroneous: They are (1) that the scope of Congress’s authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause is broader than it is, (2) that the Clause covers the amendment process, and (3) that ordinary legislation may govern the amendment process.
The Necessary and Proper Clause is the last item in the Article I, Section 8 list of congressional powers. It reads:
The Congress shall have Power . . . To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
It happens that the most extensive treatment of the Necessary and Proper Clause is an academic book I co-authored with Professors Gary Lawson, Guy Seidman, and Geoff Miller: The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press, 2010) (cited by Justice Thomas in a Supreme Court case earlier this year and apparently relied on by Chief Justice Roberts in 2012). This book reveals the Necessary and Proper Clause to be a masterpiece of legal draftsmanship.
The Clause was based on usage common in 18th-century legal documents. It is not a grant of authority, but a rule of interpretation. It tells us to construe certain enumerated powers as the ratifiers understood them rather than in an overly-narrow way. In legal terms, the Necessary and Proper Clause informs us that those enumerated powers include “incidental” authority.
Even if the Clause did apply to the amendment process, the authority “incidental” to Congress’s call would be quite narrow. An entity that calls an interstate convention always has been limited to specifying the time, place, and subject matter. It is the state legislatures who control selection of their own commissioners, thank you very much.
But in fact the Necessary and Proper Clause does not extend to the amendment process. To explain:
The Constitution includes numerous grants of power. These grants are made to Congress, to the President, to the courts, and to state legislatures and various conventions. The Clause is crafted to apply to most of those grants, but it also excludes a number of them. Specifically, it covers only the powers listed in Article I, Section 8, and those vested in the “Government of the United States” and in “Departments” and “Officers” of that government.
In other words, the Clause omits constitutional grants made to entities that are not part of the “Government of the United States.” For example, the Clause does not apply to state legislatures regulating congressional election law, prescribing selection of presidential electors, or (before the 17th amendment) choosing U.S. Senators. Nor does it apply to the conventions and legislatures operating in the amendment process.
But is Congress a “Department” of government as the Necessary and Proper Clause uses that word? When Congress acts in its normal legislative capacity, you can argue this either way. But when Congress acts under the amendment process, the answer is clearly “no.”
This is because when Congress and state legislatures act in the amendment process, they do so not as branches of government, but as ad hoc assemblies. We know this (1) from the Founding Era record, (2) from subsequent history and, perhaps most importantly, (3) from decisions of the United States Supreme Court. See, for example, United States v. Sprague (1931).
Well, if Congress cannot insert language in the “call” structuring the convention, can it pass laws for the same purpose? Again, the answer is “no.” A long list of 20th century cases from courts at all levels holds that ordinary legislation does not bind the amendment process. See, for example, Leser v. Garnett (1922).
This Article is a modified version of one appearing in the American Thinker.
If President after President failed to veto bills, would it surprise you if congressional power grew at the expense of the presidency? If the Senate never blocked the President’s appointments, would it surprise you if presidential power expanded at the expense of Congress? If the courts refused to enforce the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto laws, would it be strange if the states passed more ex post facto laws?
And if the states failed to use the Constitution’s “convention for proposing amendments” — a device inserted in the document to correct and check federal excesses and abuses — would it astonish you if there were federal excesses and abuses?
Of course not. Each of the Constitution’s checks is designed to ensure that the system operates in a balanced way while preserving liberty. Disabling any of these checks violates the Founders’ design.
Although Presidents often veto bills, senators sometimes block nominations, and the courts enforce the ban on state ex post facto laws, the Article V procedure by which a convention of states bypasses Congress and proposes corrective amendments has never been used to completion. The neglect helps explain the size and dysfunction of the modern federal government.
There are, of course, social, political, and economic explanations for expansion of federal power. There also are constitutional explanations. The three most common constitutional explanations are:
- The 16th Amendment (ending the apportionment rule for federal income taxes) granted the federal government a massive new revenue source.
- The 17th Amendment, by transferring senatorial elections from the state legislatures to the people, reduced the role of the states in the federal system.
- In the late 1930s and (especially) the 1940s, the Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility to police the boundaries of federal jurisdiction.
The 16th Amendment explanation falls short in a number of respects. Although the Amendment provided a new revenue source, it did not otherwise expand federal enumerated powers. Moreover, during the late 19th century (1865-95) and much of the early 20th century (1913-29) Congress enjoyed the de facto ability to impose non-apportioned income taxes. Yet federal spending shrank to (approximately) historic peacetime size after both the Civil War and after World War I.
The 17th Amendment reduced direct state legislative influence over the U.S. Senate, but it also provided some compensating advantages to the states. Some pro-small-government scholars believe the Amendment’s unbundling of state legislative and senatorial elections actually increased the relative power of the states. In other words, despite all the rhetoric on the subject, the net effect of the 17th Amendment on the federal state balance is still uncertain.
As for the Supreme Court’s abdication of its duty to police federal limits in the late 1930s and 1940s: This was a crucial development, but it fails to explain the previous actions of Congress and the President. Beginning around 1930 (despite unfavorable Supreme Court precedent), federal politicians were able to leverage a financial crisis to seize far more power than federal politicians ever had before. During World War II, they were able to hold and expand that power.
The failure of state legislatures to trigger the Article V process in the midst of depression and war is understandable. Less justifiable was state inaction during the decades after World War II, when the federal government refused to retreat to traditional peacetime levels — especially since that sort of intransigence was precisely the kind of crisis for which the convention device was created.
To be sure, there were some efforts to trigger the convention procedure. The first was the state-based movement for presidential term limits, which became unnecessary when Congress proposed the the 22nd amendment.
The other two were the campaign for a balanced budget amendment and for reversal of Supreme Court apportionment decisions. Both were defeated when apologists for the status quo filled gullible activists with “runaway convention” hysteria.
Neglect of the Article V convention procedure has caused incalculable damage to the constitutional system. The recent surge in “convention of states” activity — at least 15 new state applications since 2011 — may signal that the cure has begun.
Well over a hundred state lawmakers from 33 states met this past week to plan for an Article V “Convention for Proposing Amendments.” Most attendees had been appointed officially as delegates by the leaders of their respective state legislatures.
The highly successful meeting dealt with such issues as convention rules and procedures, how to involve more legislatures in the process and how Congress should count applications. A key committee decided that, as with all prior interstate conventions, any Article V gathering should be conduced on the “one state/one vote” principle. The committee also decided that the basic source for convention rules would be Mason’s Manual, a familiar source now used by 70 of the 99 state legislative bodies (99 because there are two legislative chambers in 49 states each and one in Nebraska).
This was the second meeting of this group, formerly called the Mt. Vernon Assembly, but now the Assembly of State Legislatures. The effort is strictly bipartisan, and no special interest contributions are accepted.
A highlight of the proceedings came when the general session of the Assembly held its first rollcall vote—by states! The counting process was a little ragged the first time, but smoother the second. It was an electric moment. One member said later, “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is really how it’s going to be!’”
Among those to be credited with conceiving and leading the Assembly are Rep. Chris Kapenga (Wisc.), Sen. David Long (Ind.), and Rep. Gary Banz (Okl.) The presiding officer for the general sessions was Rep. Matt Huffman (Ohio).
It increasingly looks like a “convention for proposing amendments” is really going to happen. The last 18 months have witnessed a flood of new state legislative applications for such a convention.
New Hampshire re-booted the process in 2012 with an application for a convention limited to considering a balanced budget amendment.
Late last year, the Ohio legislature passed a similar application by strong bipartisan majorities. The Tennessee legislature soon followed, by an overwhelming vote. Next came Michigan and Georgia. Florida then cured a defective 2010 application. The most recent action was in Louisiana, where the vote was not only bipartisan, but unanimous.
The balanced budget advocates now claim 24 of the 34 states necessary to force a convention, although my reading of the applications and the law puts the figure at 21. Either way, it is an extraordinary development.
In addition, four states have passed “faithful delegate acts” providing for discipline of convention commissioners, most recently Florida. (I’ll review the Florida law next week.)
There’s more: This year three states adopted the broader Convention of States application that permits the convention to consider amendments (but only amendments) that “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.” Those states are Florida, Georgia, and Alaska.
In addition, the Vermont legislature adopted the only “progressive” application—a proposal to restrict the scope of First Amendment freedoms. No other states have followed suit, and there is little chance that many will. Whatever dissatisfaction there may be with “money in politics,” most people recognize that far greater problems are federal overreach and looming federal bankruptcy.
A spate of new applications from state legislatures for a “convention for proposing amendments” make it more likely that we will have an amendments convention in the near future. In order to get ready for this historic event, lawyers, legislators, and others involved in the process need a reliable guide to the law governing amendment conventions.
Citizens for Self Governance has just published my legal treatise on the subject as part of their Convention of States project. It is called A Compendium for Lawyers and Legislative Drafters. In addition to over 80 pages of original material, it includes important and reliable scholarly articles on the subject. You can download it for free here.
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding, supreme court
(This article originally appeared in the American Thinker.)
Opponents of a Convention of States long argued that there was an unacceptable risk a convention might do too much. It now appears they were mistaken. So they increasingly argue that amendments cannot do enough.
The “too much” contention was first promulgated in modern times by apologists for the liberal, ultra-activist Earl Warren/Warren Burger Supreme Court. Specifically, these apologists feared a convention might propose amendments to reverse their favorite judicial decisions. Their tactic was to claim that an amendments convention, even if legally limited, could turn into a “con-con” that disregarded its limits, repealed the Bill of Rights, and restored slavery. (Yes, some of them really said that.)
The liberals who promoted this scenario must have been amused when some deeply conservative groups fell into the trap and began using the same argument to kill conservative amendments.
The “too much” line, however, has been losing its persuasiveness. New research shows it to be legally and historically weak, and Americans increasingly are pondering the very real dangers of not resorting to the convention process the Founders bequeathed to us.
Hence the shift to the “too little” argument. Its gist is that amendments would accomplish nothing because federal officials would violate amendments as readily as they violate the original Constitution.
Opponents will soon find their new position even less defensible than the old. This is because the contention that amendments are useless flatly contradicts over two centuries of American experience — experience that demonstrates that amendments work. In fact, amendments have had a major impact on American political life, mostly for good.
* * * *
The Framers inserted an amendment process into the Constitution to render the underlying system less fragile and more durable. They saw the amendment mechanism as a way to:
* correct drafting errors;
* resolve constitutional disputes, such as by reversing bad Supreme Court decisions;
* respond to changed conditions, and
* correct and forestall governmental abuse.
The Framers turned out to be correct, because in the intervening years we have adopted amendments for all four of those reasons. Today, nearly all of these amendments are accepted by the overwhelming majority of Americans, and all but very few remain in full effect. Possibly because ratification of a constitutional amendment is a powerful expression of popular political will, amendments have proved more durable than some parts of the original Constitution.
Following are some examples:
Correcting drafting errors
Although the Framers were very great people, they still were human, and they occasionally erred. Thus, they inserted in the Constitution qualifications for Senators, Representatives, and the President, but omitted any for Vice President. They also adopted a presidential/vice presidential election procedure that, while initially plausible, proved unacceptable in practice.
The founding generation proposed and ratified the Twelfth Amendment to correct those mistakes. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment addressed some other deficiencies in Article II, which deals with the presidency. (My reference to a particular amendment does not mean I agree with every provision in it.)
Both the Twelfth and Twenty-Fifth Amendments are in full effect today.
Resolving constitutional disputes and overruling the Supreme Court
The Framers wrote most of the Constitution in clear language, but they knew that, as with any legal document, there would be differences of interpretation. The amendment process was a way of resolving interpretative disputes.
The founding generation employed it for this purpose just seven years after the Constitution came into effect. In Chisholm v. Georgia, the Supreme Court misinterpreted the wording of Article III that defines the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The Eleventh Amendment reversed that decision.
In 1857, the Court issued Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which it erroneously interpreted the Constitution to deny citizenship to African Americans. The Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment reversed that case.
In the 1970, the Court decided Oregon v. Mitchell, whose misinterpretation of the Constitution created a national election law mess. A year later, Americans cleaned up the mess by ratifying the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.
All these Amendments are in full effect today, and fully respected by the courts. Some argue, in fact, that the Supreme Court actually over-enforces the Eleventh Amendment — a contention with which I do not agree.
Responding to Changed Conditions
The Twentieth Amendment is the most obvious example of a response to changed conditions. Reflecting improvements in transportation since the Founding, it moved the inauguration of Congress and President from March to the January following election.
Other amendments as well were wholly or partially triggered by changed conditions. The Seventeenth Amendment, which transferred elections for Senators from the state legislatures to the people, is still controversial in some quarters. But it was adopted only after social changes had caused widespread breakdown in the prior election system. (That is why the state legislatures themselves sought the change.) With the partial exception of Mark Levin, few if any of its critics address the very real problems the Seventeenth Amendment was designed to solve.
Similarly, the Nineteenth Amendment, which assured women the vote in states not already granting it, was passed for reasons beyond simple fairness. When the Constitution was written, overwhelming domestic duties and very short female life expectancies effectively disqualified most women from politics. During the 1800s, medical and technological advances made possible by a vigorous market economy improved the position of women immeasurably and rendered their political participation far more feasible. Without these changes, I doubt the Nineteenth Amendment would have been adopted.
Needless to say, the Seventeenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Amendments all are in full effect many years after they were ratified.
Correcting and forestalling government abuse
Avoiding and correcting government abuse was a principal reason the Constitutional Convention unanimously inserted the state-driven convention procedure into Article V. Our failure to use that procedure helps explain why the earlier constitutional barriers against federal overreaching seem a little ragged. Before looking at the problems, however, let’s look at some successes:
* In 1992, we ratified the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, 203 years after James Madison first proposed it. It limits congressional pay raises, although some would say not enough.
* In 1951, we adopted the Twenty-Second Amendment, limiting the President to two terms. Eleven Presidents later, it remains in full force, and few would contend it has not made a difference.
Now the problems: Because we have not used the convention process, the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) remain almost the only amendments significantly limiting congressional overreaching. I suppose that if the Founders had listened to the “amendments won’t make any difference” crowd, they would not have adopted the Bill of Rights either. But I don’t know anyone today who seriously claims the Bill of Rights has made no difference.
In fact, the Bill of Rights continues to have a huge impact more than two centuries after adoption. The courts enforce, to at least some extent, all of the original ten except, arguably, the Ninth. Some, such as the First Amendment, have been “super enforced.” Others, such as the Second and Fourth are under relentless pressure, but remain far better than nothing at all.
What about the Ninth and Tenth? They are certainly under-enforced today, but we must remember that they enjoyed full effect for nearly 150 years. No reasonable person would classify 150 years of effect as anything but a stellar political success. Even today, the Tenth retains some of its power, as Congress learned when the Supreme Court upended its effort to corral all the states into the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience,” Patrick Henry said. “I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”
In this case, the lamp of experience sheds light unmistakably bright and clear: Constitutional amendments work.
Many opponents of an Article V convention seem to think that it would be a nearly unique event, for which the “only precedent” would be the 1787 constitutional convention. Some even go so far as to oppose non-Article V gatherings among the states.
As regular readers know, the idea that a convention of states would be a nearly unique event is pure balderdash. Meetings among sovereign states (and before Independence, American colonies) on constitutional and other issues, have been a staple of American life for over 300 years. I’ve counted at least 35 of them since 1689—21 before Independence, ten in the first 11 years of Independence, and another four since the Constitution was ratified (1814, 1850, 1861, and 1922). Several of these conventions proposed constitutional changes.
In addition, the states have often commissioned problem-solving task forces that look a lot like conventions even if they don’t comply with all the technical criteria. Here’s a modern example:
The Delaware River Basin Advisory Committee was a task force consisting of commissioners from four states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey) and two cities (New York and Philadelphia). In 1959 and 1960, it negotiated the Delaware River Basin Compact. The states arranged this compact largely to preempt federal efforts to control the waters of the Delaware River. Despite being upstaged, Congress ultimately approved the deal, as required by Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution.
One could argue that Delaware River Basin Advisory Committee fits all the criteria for “a convention of states.” Participation by the cities certainly didn’t disqualify it as such: Representatives from other governmental units participating in multi-state conventions, while unusual, was not unprecedented. But because of its informality and the length of its existence (handling several tasks over several years), I’d prefer to call the Delaware River Basin Advisory Committee a “quasi-convention.”
Yet it certainly represents yet another event in the long history of conventions and convention-style meetings among states.
In other words, for an Article V convention, we have precedents by the bushel. For the legal and practical implications of this, see this prior posting.
For over 300 years, American states (and before Independence, American colonies) have cooperated with each other as equal sovereigns to address common problems.
One device for doing so is the formal, diplomatic meeting of state delegations (called “committees”) consisting of delegates (called “commissioners”). Meetings of state commissioners may be bilateral—as when two states form a boundary commission to resolve a boundary dispute. Such gatherings also may be multilateral—that is, with three or more state committees participating. The usual label for a multi-state meeting is convention.
Most commentators on the Constitution have shown no familiarity with any multi-state conventions other than the 1787 Constitutional Convention and (sometimes) the Annapolis Convention held the previous year. Some opponents of the Article V “convention for proposing amendments” have even argued that the 1787 gathering is our only historical precedent.
The truth is dramatically different. Far from the 1787 Philadelphia convention being unique, at the time it was more like business as usual. Over the previous century, there had been more 30 conventions among colonies and states. The Constitutional Convention was the 11th held since Independence had been declared in 1776. Others had been held in Providence (twice), York Town, PA (1777), Springfield (1777), Hartford (twice), New Haven (1778), Philadelphia (1780), Boston (1780), and Annapolis (1786).
After the Constitution was adopted the states met less frequently, but they did continue to meet. The New England states convened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814. The Southern states gathered in Nashville, Tennessee in 1850. And the states held a general convention—one to which every state was invited—in Washington, D.C. in 1861. The Washington Conference Convention, as it was labeled, was called to propose to Congress a constitutional amendment to ward off Civil War. It did produce such an amendment, but Congress failed to act on it.
There was at least one more recent gathering as well. In 1922, seven southwestern states sent commissioners to negotiate the Colorado River Compact. Although the assembly was called the Colorado River Commission, it was in all respects a convention of states, and it may be called the “Santa Fe Convention,” after the city where its most important sessions were held.
The group convened 27 times over the course of a single year. The first seven sessions occurred in Washington, D.C., the eighth in Phoenix, the ninth in Denver, and the remaining 18 in Santa Fe.
The convention consisted of seven commissioners, one from each participating state. This made it one of the smaller interstate conventions, but by no means the smallest. The group decided to include a federal representative, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover—then perhaps the best known and most highly-regarded engineer in the world. Including a federal representative was advisable because, unlike proposed constitutional amendments, interstate compacts must be approved by Congress.
However, inclusion of a representative of another sovereignty in a multi-state convention was well-precedented: several inter-colonial conventions had included commissioners from the British Crown or from sovereign Indian tribes.
The Colorado River Commission followed all the principal rules for a convention of states:
* Each state had one vote;
* The convention decided on its own procedures;
* The convention elected its own officers—a chairman who was a commissioner and a secretary who was not;
* After the initial call, the convention controlled the time and place of meeting;
* The commissioners stayed within their prescribed agenda; and
* They produced a recommendation ultimately ratified by the participating states.
There also were three more unusual aspects. First, because of the special needs of interstate compacting, the group adopted a unanimous voting rule. By unanimous vote, they later changed this temporarily, allowing approval of resolutions by a majority of states. Second, the convention adjourned for weeks at a time to allow the technical staff to do its work. This was not unprecedented: The Nashville Convention first met in June, 1850 and then adjourned to November. Finally, the convention decided to rotate its meetings among several different cities.
Most importantly, the Santa Fe gathering provides us with yet another, relatively recent, instance of sovereign American states meeting in convention.
NB: Thanks to Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute for his insights into interstate-compact negotiation process. They were helpful in preparing this post. Also, thanks to Peg Brady for her research.
The Cato Institute has published a new paper by Professor John Dinan that summarizes all the credible ways in which the states can and do push back against Washington, D.C. The only omission to this excellent summary is the states’ amendment powers under the Constitution’s Article V. (Although the states have never forced Congress to call an amendments convention, they often have used their Article V powers, successfully or unsuccessfully, to force changes in federal policy.)
Professor Dinan’s paper summarizes such techniques as state lawsuits against federal officials, refusal to participate in federal programs, refusal to cooperate with federal criminal law, and others. It is a good resource for citizens and state officials who wish to restore the Constitution’s balance of power between the states and the central government.