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How We Know a National Amendments Convention Is a ‘Convention of the States’

How We Know a National Amendments Convention Is a ‘Convention of the States’

Most state legislatures have filed applications with Congress demanding a national convention for proposing constitutional amendments. Americans are asking just what kind of convention the Constitution requires.Nearly all experts believe an amendments convention is a “convention of the states”—the traditional term for a meeting in which representatives of state legislatures deliberate on the basis of sovereign equality. The rule at a convention of the states is that each state has an equal voice.

This would be a familiar procedure: There have been about 40 conventions of states in American history—although this one would be the first called to propose constitutional amendments under the authority of the Constitution itself.

Other commentators—predominately, but not exclusively, convention opponents—argue an amendments convention should consist of popularly elected delegates, perhaps allocated by population.

The Constitution itself merely refers to the assembly as a “Convention for proposing Amendments.” So we must look at history to understand how the Founders understood the term.

In an 1831 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said an amendments convention is a convention of the states. My newly-issued research study confirms the Supreme Court was correct.

During the century before the Constitution was drafted, conventions among North American colonies, and later among states, met on average every three or four years. After Independence in 1776, the pace quickened: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was the 11th interstate gathering in 11 years. All were assemblies of state delegations, operating as ambassadors from their respective states.

The delegates were officially called “commissioners” and the meetings dubbed either “conventions of the states” or by some well-recognized synonym.

The fact that the founders knew only of the “convention of the states” model of interstate meeting suggests strongly they intended an amendments convention to work the same way. The new study shows how the “convention of states” approach fits within the Constitution they drafted and approved.

Additionally, the study collects numerous documents in which Founders specifically labeled an amendments convention a “convention of the states.” All these documents originated when Americans still were debating the new Constitution. Remarkably, everyone seems to have shared the view that an amendments convention would be a “convention of the states,” irrespective of whether he favored the Constitution.

For example, in New York legislative debates, two lawmakers referred to an amendments convention as a “convention of the states.” One was John Lansing Jr., who had served as a framer in Philadelphia. Similarly, in South Carolina, another framer, Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, referred to the amendments convention in much the same way.

Newspaper articles used the same term. Leading founders such as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton made comments that reveal their assumption that an amendments convention is a convention of the states.

Perhaps most persuasive of all are the references to “convention of the states” in state legislative resolutions and other government documents. During 1788 and 1789, several state legislatures debated whether to formally apply to Congress for a convention, primarily to obtain a bill of rights. The very first application, passed by the Virginia legislature, used the term “convention of the states,” and the second (New York’s) used a common synonym.

The study observes: “Within a few months amid the ratification debates, five states in different regions of the country—three in favor, one against, and one neutral—issued seven official documents identifying an amendments convention as a convention of the states.”

For a such a gathering, the state legislatures decide how many commissioners to send to the convention and how they are chosen. Previous experience suggests state legislatures will select most commissioners. That ensures the commissioners are experienced in public policy and official drafting.

When the convention is called to order, each delegation will have an equal voice. Although the assembly theoretically could change that rule, no convention of states ever has.

If delegations from all 50 states attend, then 26 will be able to propose an amendment. Their proposal will, however, be merely a proposal. To become part of the Constitution, three-fourths of the states (38) must approve, thereby assuring the amendment has strong popular support.

This article originally appeared in Townhall.com

First National Convention of States in 150 Years!

First National Convention of States in 150 Years!

Americans finally have a real chance to “clean up the mess in Washington.” That’s the implication of the news that the Arizona legislature has called the first national “convention of states” in over 150 years.

The conclave will meet in Phoenix on September 12. Its purpose is to plan for a later convention to propose a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Contrary to some histrionic claims, neither the planning assembly nor the subsequent gathering will be constitutional conventions. Each will be a taskforce limited to narrow topics. Any amendment suggested by the later convention would become part of the Constitution only if approved by 38 states.

State lawmakers nationwide have become increasingly frustrated by federal dysfunction. One complaint is Congress’s persistent failure to balance its budget, which has resulted in a skyrocketing national debt.

The Constitution’s chief mechanism for addressing such long-term problems is a special kind of convention of the states the Constitution calls a “convention for proposing amendments.” This assembly must be called if two-thirds of the state legislatures (34 of 50) demand it. Most state legislatures already have done so.

The Arizona legislature is among them, and it apparently believes the 34-state threshold will be crossed soon.

Convention History

Although the last national convention of states was held in 1861, such gatherings — both national and regional — have had prominent roles in American history.

Before American Independence, inter-colony conventions deliberated over defense matters and relations with the Indians and with the British. Examples include the Stamp Act Congress (1765) and the First Continental Congress (1774). After Independence, several interstate conventions addressed defense, as well as such issues as trade and monetary inflation. In 1787, an interstate convention with an unusually broad mandate proposed the U.S. Constitution.

Later conventions of the states have been far more limited than the Constitutional Convention. Gatherings in 1814 and 1861 informally proposed specific constitutional amendments. An 1889 regional convention recommended uniform anti-trust laws. One of its recommendations induced Congress to pass the Sherman Anti-Trust Act the following year.Regional conventions in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s negotiated interstate water compacts.

The latest call is Arizona House Concurrent Resolution 2022, passed on March 30. It also requires a strictly limited conclave. It provides: “The State of Arizona respectfully calls a planning convention of the states, consisting of commissioners chosen and authorized in the manner that each respective state legislature determines… on September 12, 2017 in Phoenix.”

The planning convention will recommend (1) rules and procedures for the balanced budget convention and (2) a date and location that Congress can use when calling the balanced budget convention.

The resolution also recommends that the planning convention adopt “Mason’s Manual” — the same guide currently used by the legislatures of most states — for its parliamentary procedures.

Convention Procedure Well Understood

Despite some uninformed assertions on the subject, there is no mystery surrounding the protocols governing conventions of states. Those protocols have been firmly established for over two centuries. For example, each state has equal voting power; the convention elects its own officers; and the convention is limited by the scope of its “call.”

The Arizona resolution recognizes all these protocols.

This is the latest in a parade of events showing the state legislatures are becoming serious about addressing problems the feds refuse to face. In 2016, the Assembly of State Legislatures, a national bipartisan group, proposed rules for amendments conventions. In October, representatives from nearly all the state legislatures met in a simulated convention held in Williamsburg, Virginia in October. They adopted rules based on a set I had put together based on prior convention experience.

In addition, 10 states have demanded a convention to propose federal term limits and controls on federal power.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a state legislative trade group, has published a popular guide to the process, which I authored.

This article first appeared in the American Spectator.

Using a convention of states to bypass Congress

Using a convention of states to bypass Congress

Convinced that Congress is unlikely to cure federal dysfunction, most state legislatures have triggered the Constitution’s most important reform mechanism: They have applied for what the Constitution calls “a convention for proposing amendments”—a kind of convention of states

This year, Wyoming became the 29th state to apply for a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment. The Utah House of Representatives applied for a convention to propose congressional term limits. Arizona became the ninth state to endorse a convention that could do both, and Texas is likely to become the tenth.

Unfortunately, opponents of reform have launched a media disinformation campaign to stop it.

Article V of the Constitution provides that three fourths of the states (now 38 of 50) must ratify an amendment before it becomes effective. Before ratification, however, it must be formally proposed—either by Congress or by a “convention for proposing amendments.” A convention is called when two thirds of state legislatures (34 of 50) adopt overlapping resolutions in favor of one.

The founders inserted the convention procedure so the people, acting through their state legislatures, could propose reforms that Congress would rather block. The founders viewed the procedure as a crucial constitutional right. Without it, the Constitution may not have been adopted.

The Disinformation Campaign Against a Convention of States

Opponents’ disinformation campaign is designed to frighten Americans away from using a convention to bypass the Washington power establishment. In some ways, their campaign resembles efforts to suppress voting among targeted groups. It propagates four central assertions—all of them constitutional junk.

Opponents sometimes cite “experts” or “legal scholars” for these claims. These almost always turn out to be people who know little about the subject and have never published any serious research on it.

The Facts About a Convention of States to Propose Amendments

Why are these four claims false? To begin with, a “convention for proposing amendments” cannot change the Constitution’s ratification procedure or impose amendments unilaterally. It can only propose amendments for ratification. According to the Supreme Court, everyone acting in the amendment process is subject to the Constitution’s rules.

Also, there is no “mystery” about the nature of the convention: Both founding-era documents and the U.S. Supreme Court inform us that it is a “convention of the states.”

Conventions of states (or, before independence, of colonies) have been a recurrent feature in American life for more than three centuries. When the Constitution was ratified, there already had been at least thirty. Subsequent conventions of states met in 1814, 1850, 1861, 1889, and several times during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, the 1861 convention of states met in Washington, D.C.  It was national in scope and it proposed a constitutional amendment. But it was not a “constitutional convention,” and neither is any other convention for proposing amendments.

The courts tell us that Article V of the Constitution is applied according to historical practice.  Convention protocols have been standardized for more than two centuries. When the Constitution was written, those protocols were so familiar there was no need to reproduce them in the document—just as there was no need to explain the phrase “trial by jury.”

Convention of states protocols provide that the state legislatures determine how commissioners are selected. They provide that the convention adopts its internal procedures and elects its officers. Each state has equal voting power. Congress has no authority over these issues. None.

Deliberations are limited to its prescribed subject matter—a limit virtually all conventions of states have respected. The assertion that the 1787 Constitutional Convention exceeded its authority is also false: It derives from failure to read or understand that body’s governing documents.

After deliberation, a convention of states decides whether to recommend solutions to the assigned problems. For example, in 1889, the Kansas state legislature called a regional convention of states to address anti-competitive business practices. The conclave met, deliberated, and issued several recommendations. One of its recommendations induced Congress to pass the Sherman Anti-Trust Act the following year.

Finally, when its business is performed, the convention adjourns.

The convention of states process is well-honed, safe, and effective. Americans need to consider carefully whether the Constitution should be amended. But they should not allow disinformation to influence their choice.

Note: This article first appeared in The Hill.

More 20th Century Conventions of States Discovered—Many More!

More 20th Century Conventions of States Discovered—Many More!

As I have reported previously, there have been many conventions of states (and, before Independence, of colonies). Some of these conventions proposed amendments to the Articles of Confederation or to the Constitution.

Among these gatherings have been more than 20 inter-colonial conventions, eleven interstate conventions held between 1776 and 1787, six during the 19th century, and the Colorado River Compact Commission (CRCC) of 1922. Most of these were regional meetings, but they also included seven “general” or national conclaves—held in 1754, 1765, 1774, 1780, 1786, 1787, and 1861.

Do not confuse the 1922 Colorado River Compact Commission, which negotiated the Colorado River Compact, with a permanent regulatory commission. The CRCC was a temporary body consisting of duly authorized state representatives empowered to propose a solution to a designated problem: in other words, a true convention of states. It met in four different cities, but most of its sessions were held in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The CRCC gathering in Santa Fe did feature some variations on the convention theme. For one thing, the federal government was invited to send a representative and participate, since under the Constitution Congress would have to approve the resulting agreement. Moreover, the Santa Fe conclave operated pursuant to the respective states’ reserved, Tenth Amendment powers. (An Article V convention, by contrast, derives its authority directly from the Constitution.) The Santa Fe formula was worked out by Delphus Carpenter, a prominent Colorado water lawyer and former state senator who served as his state’s representative in Santa Fe. However, neither variation was unique: Other conventions of states (including those held in 1684, 1754, and 1889) have invited non-state sovereignties to participate, and most of them relied on reserved power rather than direct constitutional authorization.

More Conventions of States!

Now I have learned that the Santa Fe convention was only the foam on the top of the river. In recent days, I have discovered:

* A convention of Colorado River states that met in Salt Lake City in 1920.

* A convention of three states that negotiated the Rio Grande River Compact. The states met informally (without legislative credentialing) in Colorado Springs in 1924. They then broke up and, after all commissioners had been fully credentialed, met again in Santa Fe at the end of 1928. They concluded a temporary compact in early 1929—the basis for the permanent Rio Grande compact that become effective in 1939.

* The North Platte River Commission, also consisting of three states, began meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1924, and then intermittently until negotiations broke down.

* The three lower basin Colorado River states—California, Arizona, and Nevada—apparently met after 1922 to resolve water issues among them, but unsuccessfully.

* Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming, together with a federal representative, convened in Denver beginning December 3, 1929. They successfully negotiated the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact.

* In 2003, Professor Daniel Tyler, Delphus Carpenter’s biographer, wrote: “Of the sixteen water allocation compacts negotiated and approved between 1922 and 1971, all but three followed a similar pattern developed by Carpenter of negotiation by commissioners, participation by a federal representative, and approval by Congress.”

Were All of These True Conventions of States?

Were all of these true conventions of states? I don’t know yet. For an event to qualify historically as a true convention of states, there must be actual meetings, not mere long-range contact, as in some interstate compact negotiations. Participation must be multi-lateral—that is, more than two states must take part. Participation must be authorized by each state legislature, with the legislature designating, or providing for designation, of commissioners. The gathering must be an ad hoc, temporary one, designed to address pre-designated issues.

I don’t yet have sufficient information to identify all of these conclaves as “conventions,” but it is already clear that some of them were.

Why Isn’t This More Widely Known?

You might ask: Why isn’t it more generally known that conventions of states were a regular feature of American life well into the 20th century?

Let me suggest three reasons:

(1) Historically, some conventions have been designated by different labels. Prior to establishment of the federal Congress as a national institution, conventions frequently were called “congresses,” although they were called conventions as well. History books label the 1765 gathering as the “Stamp Act Congress,” not the Stamp Act Convention—even though contemporaries regularly referred to it as a “congress or convention.” Throughout our history, some conventions have been called “commissions” and a few referred to as “committees.” The unintended effect has been to distract people from their common nature.

(2) Most of these gatherings addressed narrow topics not of universal interest. This was true even of the Colorado River Compact Commission. The water was, and is, of supreme importance to many Westerners. But it is of little concern to the Eastern elite that traditionally control the media, the foundations, the federal bureaucracy, and academia—and therefore the national flow of information.

(3) Those who control the flow of information have vested interests in central control of other aspects of life as well. It is certainly against their interest to inform people that states can solve problems without federal direction. Many view a convention of states in particular as a threat to their influence. Hence they try to convince you that it would be an untried, dangerous mechanism.

In fact, conventions of states represent a venerable American tradition—older than the Constitution itself, and extending well into very modern times.

Constitutional Convention: John Jay Letter Shows Its Power Came from State Legislatures, not Congress

Constitutional Convention: John Jay Letter Shows Its Power Came from State Legislatures, not Congress

A persistent constitutional myth has it that (1) Congress called the Constitutional Convention under the Articles of Confederation, (2) the convention drew its power from Congress, and (3) the convention exceeded its power when it recommended a new Constitution rather than merely propose amendments to the Articles.

As readers of this website know, however, the Constitutional Convention was not called by the Confederation Congress. It was called by Virginia and the commissioners (delegates) drew their authority from their respective state legislatures. All but two of those legislatures granted their commissioners full authority to recommend a new government.

This is further shown by a January 7, 1787 letter written by John Jay to George Washington. The letter also helps explain why the convention provided that the people, rather than the state legislatures, would ratify the Constitution.

The Jay Letter

John Jay - Not A Constitutional Convention Delegate
John Jay

In his letter, Jay first tells Washington that he is glad Washington will participate in the convention. Jay specifically says the delegates’ authority “is to be derived from acts of the State Legislatures.” But he says he has some doubts: Only the people—not state legislatures—can change constitutions. However, Jay then acknowledges that the state commissioners can recommend change. What they can’t do is mandate change. Yet Jay fears that after the convention makes its recommendation, “party Heats” may ensue.

Jay then suggests an alternative procedure: First, Congress should issue a statement that the Articles are inadequate, but without any particulars. Next, the state legislatures should authorize popular conventions to choose delegates to a general convention. The latter assembly would both write the changes and bind the people to them.

Thus, Jay understood that:

  • the Constitutional Convention’s power came from the state legislatures, not from Congress;
  • even without a popular mandate the Convention was free to propose; and
  • popular consent was necessary to ratify a new constitution.

Of course, in predicting “party Heats” once the convention’s recommendations became public, Jay proved to be a prophet.

The Constitutional Convention Chooses a Different Procedure

Jay was not a commissioner to the Constitutional Convention. That body, with congressional approval, agreed that the people’s consent was necessary for the new Constitution. But the Constitutional Convention opted for a different procedure: Instead of popular conventions electing a general convention that would bind everyone to change, the general convention would propose change and the popular gatherings would ratify or reject.

The letter is in manuscript form here. Because it is difficult to read, I’ve reproduced the relevant portion below:

A convention is in contemplation, and I am glad to find your name among those of its intended members.

To me the Policy of such a Convention appears questionable. Their authority is to derived from acts of the State Legislatures. Are the State Legislatures authorized either by themselves or others to alter constitutions? I think not. They who hold commissions can by virtue of them neither retrench nor expand the Powers conveyed by them. Perhaps it is intended that this convention shall not ordain, but only recommend—if so there is Danger that their Recommendations will produce endless Discussions, and perhaps Jealousies and party Heats.

Would it not be better, for congress plainly and in strong Terms to declare, that the present foederal government is inadequate to the Purposes for which it was instituted — that they forbear to point out its particular Defects, or to ask for an Extension of any particular powers, as improper. Jealousies should thence arise; but that in their opinion it would be expedient for the People of the States without Delay to appoint State conventions (in the way they chuse their general assemblies) with the sole and express power of appointing Deputies to a general convention, who or the majority of whom should take into consideration the Articles of Confederation, and make such alterations amendments and additions thereto as to them should appear necessary and proper; and which being by them ordained and published should have the same force and obligation which all or any of the present articles now have.

No alterations in the government should I think be made, nor if attempted will easily take place, unless deduceable from the only Source of just authority, The People.