Momentum for an Amendments Convention Accelerates Even More

June 15, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding 
Rob atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Rob atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London

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).

Momentum for Amendments Convention Accelerates

June 5, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V 
Rob in Golden Gate Canyon, Colorado

Rob in Golden Gate Canyon, Colorado

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.

Finally, there are two organizations of state lawmakers working toward a convention—the State Legislators’ Article V Caucus and the Mt. Vernon Assembly.

The Results Are In: The Obamacare “Penalty” Didn’t Violate the Origination Clause, but Obamacare’s Regulations Did

May 20, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, ObamaCare, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Is the penalty for not buying insurance in the Affordable Care Act (ACA—Obamacare) unconstitutional as a “tax” that originated in the Senate?

Under the Constitution’s Origination Clause, the answer appears to be “no”—the Senate’s decision to add the penalty to the underlying bill was not a violation of that Clause. But under the same provision, most of the remainder of Obamacare may be unconstitutional.

As I reported in February, I have been involved in a multi-month study into the meaning of the Constitution’s Origination Clause and its implications for the ACA. The Origination Clause is the Constitution’s rule that “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” My project was provoked by several federal lawsuits that claimed that because (1) the Supreme Court has held that the penalty for not buying insurance is a “tax,” and (2) the ACA law really originated in the Senate, therefore (3) the penalty was unconstitutionally adopted.

Here’s how the ACA became law: First, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3590, a bill to expand a tax credit and force certain corporations to pay income taxes earlier than previously required. When H.R. 3590 went to the Senate, that body “amended” it to delete all six pages in the bill and insert the 2076-page ACA. This amendment “in the nature of a substitute” included not only the penalty for failing to purchase insurance, but a mass of other new taxes, appropriations, and regulations. The Senate then adopted the revised H.R. 3590 and sent it back to the House, which passed it.

Many people instinctively react against this procedure, but instinctive reaction is not the same as constitutional law. My job was to reconstruct the actual meaning of the Origination Clause, not expound what I would like it to mean. I therefore reviewed the debates over the Clause at the Constitutional Convention and in the ensuing ratification contest. I then turned to 18th century legislative vocabulary, procedures, and practice. This required reviewing 50 years of British parliamentary records; examining several decades of legislative records in 14 American colonies and states; consulting 18th century treatises and other writings; and reviewing the records of the Continental Congress (1774-81), the Confederation Congress (1781-89), and the First Federal Congress (1789-91). Here is what I learned:

* Any measure that alters the tax code to raise or reduce revenue is a “Bill for raising Revenue.” Another way to state it is that any law that can be justified only by the Taxation Clause (I-8-1) rather than by some other enumerated power is a “Bill for raising Revenue.” Thus, the original H.R. 3590 qualified as a “Bill for raising Revenue” as the Constitution uses the term, even though it was revenue-neutral or revenue-negative.

* The Constitution permits the Senate to adopt “Amendments” to “Bills for raising Revenue.”

* The Senate’s “Amendment” of H.R. 3590 was what is called a “complete substitute.” I could find no precedents for complete substitutes in British parliamentary practice, but they did exist in early American practice.

* The constitutional term “Amendments” is broad, but not unlimited in scope. As the Founders used the word, an “amendment” might make virtually any kind of alteration in the underlying bill, BUT it had to  address the same subject matter as the underlying bill. This rule also applied to amendments that, like H.R. 3590, were complete substitutes.

* For constitutional purposes, all tax/revenue measures are deemed to address the same subject as all other tax/revenue measures. So even an amendment (or substitute) that completely changes the taxes in the underlying bill is a valid amendment.

* Given the Supreme Court’s decision that the penalty for not buying insurance is a “tax” (a decision that was erroneous, but is now settled law) the Senate was within the rightful scope of its amendment power by adding the penalty and other taxes to the original H.R. 3950.

* However, the original H.R. 3590 addressed only taxes. The House could have added appropriations or regulations, but it did not. The Senate not only added the penalty/tax. It also inserted appropriations for various purposes and regulations on health care providers, employers, and insurance companies.

*The added regulations did NOT address the same subject (revenue) as the underlying H.R. 3590. It was therefore outside the amendment power of the Senate to add those regulations. From an originalist point of view, those regulations are void as never properly enacted, even though the House voted for them.

* This is true even though the Senate could have originated the regulations itself in a separate bill. When amending a revenue bill, the Senate does not have power as broad as it does when originating its own (non-revenue) bills.

* In addition, the Senate inserted appropriations into H.R. 3590. These probably was also outside the Senate’s amendment power.

A court constrained by the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, but otherwise applying the Constitution’s original meaning, should rule as follows: It should uphold the ACA’s taxes, including the penalty for not buying insurance, but strike down the regulations and appropriations in the law.

You can read the entire study here.

Town of Greece Case Returns the Establishment Clause To Its Original Meaning

May 15, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Last week I reported on Justice Thomas’ citation of my work in his concurring opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a widely-discussed decision on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This week, I’ll put the decision in context.

The meaning of the Establishment Clause (”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) has long been debated. Here are some of the hypotheses advanced:

* The Founders created a “Christian nation” in which the federal government could promote Christianity.  The Establishment Clause assured, however, that the federal government would not favor any denomination of Christians over any other. This was the view of the great 19th century Supreme Court Justice and law professor Joseph Story.

* The Establishment Clause was adopted principally to protect the states from federal interference with their own established churches. This is Justice Thomas’ view.

* The Establishment Clause was adopted to protect the states from federal interference with their own established churches, but also to require the federal government to treat all religions equally. The Clause did not, however, place atheism or agnosticism on a par with religion. This conclusion is called “non-preferentialism.”

* The Clause not only protected the states from federal interference with their own established churches, but also required the government to treat all religious opinions, including atheism and agnosticism, equally. This formulation is called “neutrality,” and former Justice David Souter was one of its exponents.

* The Clause required the government to lean over backwards to avoid any entanglement or appearance of favoritism for religion. This is called “strict separation.”

There have been various modifications and blending of the views listed above, including a rather incoherent version called “accommodation,” a doctrine followed late in the 20th century by some of the more conservative justices.

Beginning in the 1940s (although with roots earlier), the Supreme Court issued a series of “strict separation” cases and imposed them on the states as well as well as on the federal government.  It soon became evident that strict separation was both impractical and contrary to the actual meaning of the Establishment Clause. Accordingly, in the 1970s the Court began a long journey from strict separation, wandering through “neutrality” and “accomodation,” and toward non-preferentialism.

The Town of Greece case seems to complete this journey. Justice Thomas’ concurrence aside, all the opinions—majority and dissent—are squarely non-preferentialist. All acknowledged that the Town could sponsor prayers before Town Board meetings. The writer of the dissent, Justice Kagan, even affirmed explicitly her support for civic prayer. The only real dispute was over whether the Town had treated all religions fairly when selecting clergy to perform the invocation. The majority thought the Town had been fair, at least on balance. The dissent thought it had unfairly favored Christianity over Judaism and other religions adhered to by citizens of the Town. But that was a dispute over the facts, not over legal doctrine.

Several years ago, I wrote an article for the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal entitled The Original Meaning of the Establishment Clause. As some other scholars had concluded before me, I found that non-preferentialism was, in fact, the intent of those who adopted the Establishment Clause: both protection of state established churches and equal congressional treatment of all religions.

This conclusion seems to be a little different from that of Justice Thomas: I believe the Clause was, in addition to a protection for federalism, a positive guarantee to all religious believers.  Perhaps this is why Justice Thomas cited my writings on the Necessary and Proper Clause rather than those on the Establishment Clause!

In any event, with the Town of Greece case the Court’s  Establishment Clause jurisprudence returns to the original meaning. Whether that jurisprudence should be imposed on the states is another matter, and Justice Thomas may well be correct that it should not.

That last question involves considering (in my opinion) not the Establishment Clause, but the “incorporation doctrine”—the doctrine by which the Supreme Court imposes nearly all of the Bill of Rights on state governments as well as on the federal government. The incorporation doctrine is a topic for another time.

Rob Natelson Cited Again at Supreme Court—This Time in a Religion Case

May 10, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob at the Trevi Fountain in Rome

Rob at the Trevi Fountain in Rome

I’m pleased to report that this past week the brilliant Justice Clarence Thomas cited my work on the Necessary and Proper Clause in his concurring opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway, an Establishment Clause case that received wide publicity. This was the thirteenth citation in the third Supreme Court case in the past 11 months.

The Establishment Clause is that part of the First Amendment that provides that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . ” The question at issue in the case was whether the Town of Greece (one of many places in upstate New York with classical Roman or Greek names), had violated that clause when it sponsored overwhelmingly Christian prayers at town council meetings.

Despite the language of the Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law. . .”), the Court has held for many years that the Clause applies to other branches of the federal government and to the states and all subdivisions of the states, including municipalities. Judicial application of parts of the Bill of Rights to the states is called the Incorporation Doctrine.

The Court ruled, 5-4 that the Town had not violated the Establishment Clause. The dispute between the majority opinion (written by Justice Kennedy) and the dissent (written by Justice Kagan) was more over the facts and the application of the facts than over basic doctrine. More on Establishment Clause jurisprudence next week.

Justice Thomas wrote separately to express his view that the Establishment Clause was designed primarily to protect official state religions (of which there were several at the Founding) from federal interference—in other words that the Establishment Clause was chiefly a protection for federalism, much like the Tenth Amendment. Since it was designed for the protection of the states, he argued, it was improper to apply it against the states. In other words, the Incorporation Doctrine should be used with some other parts of the Bill of Rights, but not with the Establishment Clause.

Justice Thomas cited one of my chapters in a book on the Necessary and Proper Clause which I wrote with Professors Gary Lawson, Geoffrey Miller, and Guy Seidman, and which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010.  The portion he cited discussed how opponents of the Constitution feared that the Necessary and Proper Clause would be abused by the federal government. Justice Thomas pointed out that the Establishment Clause, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, was adopted in part to block over-use of the Necessary and Proper Clause.

While I’m skeptical about the validity of the Incorporation Doctrine generally, I’m not sure that Justice Thomas is correct to read the Establishment Clause so narrowly. More on Establishment Clause doctrine and the significance  of the Town of Greece case next week.

Get Members of Congress Out of the Business of Rigging Campaign Rules

May 4, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

The Supreme Court’s latest campaign finance decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, has sent up the predictable howls. In McCutcheon, the Court struck down, as violating the First Amendment, certain incumbent-protection rules that Members of Congress had rigged for their own election campaigns.

But no one—including the Court—has yet convincingly addressed a question even more fundamental than the First Amendment issue: On what constitutional basis does Congress have power to regulate federal campaigns at all?

Remember: The Constitution grants the federal government only enumerated powers. If Congress has acted under one of those powers, then First Amendment implications can be important. But if Congress has acted outside its enumerated powers, then the rules of jurisprudence require the courts to void the action without reaching the First Amendment issue.

And, in fact, a careful review of the Constitution and its background demonstrates that regulation of campaigns for federal office is within the state, not the federal, sphere.

The only constitutional authority even remotely applicable to congressional regulation of federal campaigns is the clause the Supreme Court has relied on: Article I, Section 4, Clause 1, the “Times, Places and Manner” Clause—sometimes mislabeled the Elections Clause. It provides:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.

The first notable aspect about this provision is what it doesn’t say: It grants power to regulate the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,” but says nothing about presidential elections. And with good reason: the “Manner of holding” presidential elections is treated in Article II, where the “place and manner” rules are laid out in some detail and Congress is given some limited authority over the “time” of the election and the counting of electoral votes. All other power over the choice of presidential electors is explicitly left to the state legislatures (”Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .”). This is simply not an area for Congress.

The second notable aspect of the Times, Places and Manner Clause is that addresses the “Manner of holding Elections,” but says nothing about campaigns. In the Founders’ understanding, they were different areas of law.

In a 2010 article for the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, I surveyed what the Founders meant when they referred to regulation of the “manner” of election. (Justice Thomas cited this article in a case last term.) Such regulation did not cover campaigns at all, unless election-day bribery be considered a form of “campaigning.” Rather, regulating the “manner” of election meant determining the rules of the vote: Whether candidates were chosen by a plurality or majority, the rules of voter registration, whether the ballot was secret or vice voce, how votes were tabulated, and so forth—the same kind of detail set forth in Article II for presidential elections.

In the Founders’ understanding, the regulation of the “manner of election” and the governance of campaigns were distinct areas of law. The latter area included rules against corrupt practices and defamation, and the Constitution left those topics to the states to govern. There is no evidence—none—that the Times, Places and Manner Clause was designed to empower Congress to regulate its own campaigns.

Quite the contrary: As believers in the “public trust” theory of government, the Founders were keen to avoid the conflicts of interest that congressional regulation of federal campaigns would entail. In fact, even the very limited authority granted to Congress by the Times, Places and Manner Clause was controversial. Admirers as well as opponents of the Constitution criticized it.

In one respect, advocates of stricter regulation are correct: Because the Court has extended its First Amendment jurisprudence so tightly over state election laws and state defamation laws, the Court has impeded the states’ ability to experiment with different formulas so as to learn what works best. Perhaps the Court should lighten up in that area, while keeping Congress and the President out of the business of regulating federal campaigns.

One last note: A few advocates of greater congressional power over federal campaigns have cited my writings on public trust to argue that campaign finance laws promote fiduciary responsibility.

But a fundamental rule of fiduciary responsibility is avoiding conflict of interest. For members of Congress to pass laws restricting their opponents’ campaigns is a huge conflict of interest. That’s one reason the Constitution leaves governance of federal campaigns to the states.

Ownership of Federal Land: Answers Suggested by the Bundy Standoff

April 25, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 

2013-0822 RGN The Bundy stand-off in Nevada has induced several people to ask me about the extent to which the federal government can own land, at least under the Constitution’s intended meaning. As it happens, in 2005 I studied the issue in depth, and published the following article: Federal Land Retention and the Constitution’s Property Clause: The Original Understanding, 76 U. Colo. L. Rev. 327 (2005).

In a nutshell, here’s what I found:

(1) Most commentators on the issue have staked out one of two polar positions. One position, which is current U.S. Supreme Court doctrine, is that the federal government may acquire and own any land it wishes for any governmental purpose, not just for its enumerated powers. The other polar position is that the federal government may own land only for the purposes enumerated in the Enclave Clause (the national capital and “Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings”) and that the “equal footing doctrine” requires that all other federal land within a prospective state be handed over the state government upon statehood.

(2) In fact, both polar positions are false—and very clearly so. This shines through when you study the Constitution’s text, meaning, and background. By “background,” I mean its drafting history, the ratification debates, 18th century law, and so forth. However the constitutional text alone should be sufficient to cast both polar claims into doubt. The text of the Constitution grants the federal government no plenary power to hold land, only to dispose. A general power to hold is just not in there. The second polar position is also contradicted by the text: The equal footing doctrine is not there either. (It was a feature of certain pre-constitutional documents, such as the Northwest Ordinance.)

(3) The Constitution grants the federal government authority to acquire real estate and other property to carry out any enumerated purpose, either in the exercise of a core power (such as “maintain a Navy”) or through the implied powers memorialized in the Necessary and Proper Clause. Thus, Congress may acquire land to build “post Roads” (limited access highways), house tax collectors, and build lighthouses under the Commerce Power.

(4) Further, the Constitution’s Treaty Power authorizes the federal government to acquire territory.

(5) However, land acquired—through, for example, the Treaty Power—may be held only for enumerated purposes. Land not needed for such purposes must be disposed of within a reasonable time. The federal government should have disposed of BLM grazing land long ago.

(6) In fact, for the federal government to own a large share of American real estate (currently about 28 percent) is directly contrary to certain values the Constitution was designed to further.

(7) “Disposal” does not require handing real estate over to state government. On the contrary, in many situations doing so would conflict with federal officials’ duties of trust. In each instance, disposal should be effectuated so as to further the general welfare. In the case of some parcels, it may mean transferring to state government. But it may also require selling to the highest bidder, or, in the case of environmentally sensitive lands, transferring to perpetual environmental trusts, as is commonly done in England.

(8) The Enclave Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17) is really more about governmental jurisdiction than ownership. The federal government can have an enclave in which much of the territory is titled to private parties—as is true of Washington, D.C. It’s just that in an enclave, federal rather than state jurisdiction is supreme. Enclaves may be held only for enumerated purposes (as signaled by the use of the 18th century legal term “needful”). State consent to creation of an enclave is required, and consent can be conditional upon the federal government honoring particular terms.

(9) The Enclave Clause was sold to the ratifying public on the basis that enclaves would be relatively small. Holding massive tracts of undeveloped land (such as in Yosemite National Park, nearly 750,000 acres) as enclaves is not what the Founders had in mind.

(10) This is signaled by the Constitution’s use of the word “Building.” In the 18th century, the term did not have to mean an enclosed space, but it did have to refer to a fabricated construction of some kind, since as a dockyard or (in modern terms) an airport runway.

(11) But not every parcel of federal land need be an enclave: In fact, most are not and should not be. Non-enclave land owned by the federal government is held under the Property Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), and should be held only for enumerated purposes. Grazing, for example, is not an enumerated purpose.

(12) Non-enclave federal property within states is subject to state law. Contrary to current Supreme Court doctrine, when the federal government owns non-enclave land, the federal government usually should be treated like any other landowner, so long as the state respects the discharge of legitimate federal functions.

The Evidence Continues to Pile Up on “Recess Appointments”

April 18, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding 

2013-0822 RGN Earlier this year, the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy published my article showing that the Constitution’s Recess Appointments Clause limits presidential vacancy appointments far more than President Obama (and most prior Presidents) have claimed. I posted earlier on the same subject here.

The issue is before the Supreme Court right now.

The Recess Appointments Clause states in part that, “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate. . . ” In preparing the article I examined a wide range of Founding-Era documents, including early state constitutions and legislative records, to determine when a vacancy “happens” and what the Founders meant by “the Recess” of a legislative body. I learned that a vacancy “happens” only when it is created. Thus, for the President to fill a vacancy, it must have been created during the Recess, not merely continue into it.

I also learned that, while the simple noun “recess” could refer to any legislative break, the phrase “the Recess” referred only to the period between formal legislative sessions.

Another project has kept me in early American legislative documents, and new discoveries continue to confirm that “the Recess” meant only the break between sessions.

For example, I was able to obtain a copy of the hard-to-get 1784 journal of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. It contains a message from Governor John Hancock specifically referring to the time between the sessions as “the recess.” Early Maryland legislative records similarly contain repeated references to a prior or approaching period between sessions as “the recess.”

The same story recurs in New Jersey. A September 10, 1776 legislative committee report from that state clearly distinguished between the “Session” and “the Recess.”  A  May 19, 1786 report of the Governor, issued two days after the session began, provided the legislature with correspondence the governor had received during “the Recess of the House.” And a Nov. 30, 1789 resolution authorized the city mayor to take control of legislative property “during the recess of the Legislature”—that is, not during short breaks but when lawmakers went home at the end of their session.

Finally, page 147 of another hard-to-get source (the 1776 journals of the South Carolina lower house) reproduces a legislative resolution ordering that a report “be referred to the Committee on the state of the Treasury to consider and report to the House proper ways and means of supplying the Treasury in the recess of the House with such monies as may be immediately wanted for public service…” Obviously, there would be no need to do this if “the recess” referred to anything but the lengthy intersession break, because during shorter breaks lawmakers were in the capital city and available to appropriate funds if necessary.

A Legal Treatise on the Law of Amendment Conventions—For Free!

April 6, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding 
Atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London

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.

How Do We Know an Article V Amendments Convention is a “Convention of the States?” Because Both the Founders and the Supreme Court Said So

March 28, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Rob at James Madison's home in Virginia

Article V of the Constitution authorizes a “Convention for proposing Amendments.” However, it does did not specify how the convention is to be composed. People unfamiliar with constitutional history sometimes claim the makeup of an amendments convention is either a complete mystery or subject to the determination of Congress.

Nonsense. For one thing, the Supreme Court already has spoken on the matter. In 1831, the Court decided Smith v. Union Bank, in which it specifically characterized (on page 528) an amendments convention as a “convention of the states”—that is, a gathering of representatives of state legislatures.

The Court’s characterization was, in fact, the dominant one in America until misunderstandings on the subject arose in the mid-to-later 20th century. It was also the Founders’ view of an amendments convention.

The history of the 30+ conventions held among colonies and states before and during the Founding Era shows that they always were gatherings of state “committees” (delegations) of “commissioners” (delegates) appointed by the several states. Furthermore, participants in the ratification debates repeatedly referred to this process as one in which the states were the drivers.

But beyond that, there is a series of Founding-Era official documents specifically identifying a convention for proposing amendments as a “convention of the states.” For example:

*    The very first Article V application was adopted by the Virginia legislature on November 14, 1788. It recited that “happily . . . the Constitution hath presented an alternative, by admitting the submission [of an amendment] to the convention of the states.”

*    The Pennsylvania legislature did not favor Virginia’s application, and said so in a resolution adopted on March 5, 1789. The resolution recited that “it must ever be [pain]ful to the House, when obliged to dissent from the opinion of that [Virginia] Assembly upon any point of common concern to the two states, as members of the union; and particularly, on a measure of such importance as the one proposed, the calling of a convention of the states for amending the constitution . . . ” Minutes, Pa. Gen. Assembly, 124-25 (March 5, 1789)

*    On the other hand, New York’s governor, George Clinton, favored such a convention. A letter from the Virginia legislature to Governor Clinton reproduced in the New York legislative journals successfully urged New York to adopt its  own Article V application: “The propriety of immediately calling a Convention of the States, to take into consideration the defects of the Constitution, was admitted, and, in consequence thereof, an application agreed to, to be presented to the Congress, so soon as it shall be convened, for the accomplishment of that important end.”  Letter from John Jones & Thomas Mathews to Gov. George Clinton, Nov. 20, 1788, reproduced in N.Y. Assem. J., p. 25 (Dec. 27, 1788).

*    The Rhode Island legislature generally looked favorably on the idea, and responded as follows:

“Whereas, His Excellency George Clinton, president of the convention of New York, hath transmitted to the legislature of this state a proposal, that a general convention of the states should take place, in order that such necessary amendments may be made in the constitution proposed for a federal government, as will secure to the people at large their rights and liberties, and to remove the exceptionable parts of the said proposed constitution:
It is therefore voted and resolved, that the secretary forthwith cause to be printed a sufficient number of copies of Governor Clinton’s letter, with the amendments proposed by the convention of the state of New York, and transmit one as soon as possible to each town clerk in the state; who is hereby directed, upon receipt thereof, to issue his warrant to call the freemen of such town to convene in town meeting, to take the same into consideration, and thereupon to give their deputies instructions whether they will have delegates appointed to meet in convention with the state of New York, and such other states as shall appoint the same; or such other instructions as they may deem conducive to the public good; that this General Assembly may know their determination at the session to be holden by adjournment on the last Monday in December next. . . . ”
Records of the State of Rhode Island, vol. 10, pp. 309-10 (Oct. 27, 1788).

By contrast, a convention held within a state was thought of as a convention of the people.

All of these documents were issued while discussion over ratification of the Constitution was continuing. Eleven states had ratified, but in North Carolina and Rhode Island the outcome was still very much in doubt. Moreover, these are all official documents, not the product of individual eccentrics. As such, they are powerful evidence that a “Convention for proposing Amendments” was understood to be a gathering of the states. The Framers of Article V didn’t need to spell it out, precisely because everyone knew it.

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