Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Constitutional Commission in New York: A Worthy Tradition

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Constitutional Commission in New York: A Worthy Tradition

Article excerpt

In 1997, when New Yorkers decisively defeated a constitutionally mandated ballot proposition to convene what would have been the state's fourth constitutional convention in the twentieth century, they placed the fate of constitutional reform with the state legislature.(1) Not until the year 2017 will the question be required to appear on the ballot,(2) and the likelihood of the legislature proposing a convention vote in the interim is remote.(3) New York does not permit amendments to be submitted to the electorate through constitutional initiative,(4) and no constitutional commission has the power to submit amendments directly to the voters;(5) constitutional reform can only emanate from either a constitutional convention or the state legislature.(6) Since 1938, legislatively proposed amendments have been the only procedure successfully used for revising the state's charter.(7)

Paradoxically, the latest rejection came at a time when many of the state's political actors agreed that systematic constitutional revision was needed.(8) The League of Women Voters, Civil Service Employees Association (C.S.E.A.), American Federation of Labor--Congress of Industrial Organizations (A.F.L.-C.I.O.), National Organization of Women (NOW), and various environmental groups who opposed the calling of a convention in 1997, were, nevertheless, in agreement with proponents of the convention on the need for constitutional reform.(9) Thus, debate has focused on the means for achieving reform. Constitutional conventions, viewed as cumbersome, expensive,(10) and subject to approval by a suspicious, even dangerous, electorate have fallen from favor with citizen groups(11) and politicians.(12) The alternative, the legislature, may not be the ideal agency for providing systematic, regular revision and, in any case, has not been a successful forum for addressing such serious problems as fiscal integrity(13) and state/local relations.(14) Have we reached an impasse? This article examines the use of the constitutional commission, particularly in New York, as a means of achieving constitutional reform.

A study of the constitutional history of New York reveals that the constitutional commission has a long and vital history as a means of proposing meaningful and necessary reform within the state. Some of the most significant constitutional revision in New York has been the product of such commissions, and the most successful commissions were held in the aftermath of constitutional convention defeats.

This article examines the history and tradition of commissions as mechanisms to effectuate constitutional reform in New York, from its origins in the 1870s, when the state was struggling with issues such as corruption, home rule for burgeoning cities, and AfricanAmerican suffrage, to the present-day, when the state budget process, debt limitations, and social welfare are issues of concern. Each commission will be analyzed, and placed in the historical context from which it emerged.(15) Although a detailed analysis of the results of each commission is outside the scope of this article, an emphasis will be placed on the accomplishments and failures of each commission, as well as each commission's unique contributions to New York's constitutional history. After analyzing the constitutional commission experience of New York State, this article examines the use of constitutional commissions to provide meaningful constitutional reform in several other states, such as Florida, Utah, and Georgia.(16)


Throughout its history, New York has convened ten constitutional commissions.(17) Of these bodies, five were created specifically to prepare for upcoming constitutional conventions,(18) while six were formed to study and propose changes to the existing constitution.(19) As indicated by the appended table, the majority of constitutional commissions were statutorily created, although some were formed by a resolution of one or both houses of the legislature, and others were the product of executive order. …

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