During the past few months, most Americans following politics and public policy matters have likely been fixated on Washington.
But New York residents will be faced with a critical decision next fall that could potentially reshape state government, the courts, pensions and scores of other issues.
A statewide proposition will be before voters in November’s general election asking whether a constitutional convention should be held to explore making revisions to New York’s constitution.
On Saturday morning, the League of Women Voters of the Rivertowns held an informational forum at the Greenburgh Public Library featuring former Pleasantville mayor and county legislator John Nonna, Pace University Law School Professor Nicholas Robinson and Jay C. Carlisle, a professor emeritus at Pace Law School. They addressed the pros and cons of a convention as well as what would happen if voters approve the proposition.
Originally written in 1777, the state constitution served as a model for the creation of the U.S. Constitution. While the panelists agreed there are many strong portions of New York’s constitution – the state university system was created out of the 1894 convention and environmental protections were later created to protect forests in the Adirondacks and Catskills – there are parts that have become badly outdated through the decades.
“Jefferson said each generation should change the constitution,” Robinson said. “Let’s get into an intergenerational debate, generation to generation, not to throw out the constitution but to fix it.”
Carlisle said the current court system, also created in 1894, is among the most unwieldy in the United States, with at least 11 different types of trial courts. The state constitution calls for four appellate divisions but the Second Appellate Division has more than half the state’s population. Furthermore, state Supreme Court justices must retire by 70 years old, something that may have made sense over 120 years ago but not in the 21st century, he said.
“A 70-year-old man can run for and get elected president of the United States but we can’t have a judge in the state Supreme Court (of that age),” Carlisle said.
Convening a convention would also be a chance for the state to create an ethics commission, something New York sorely needs but has been avoided by the legislature, he said.
Under the state constitution, the proposition asking for a convention appears on the ballot every 20 years, said Nonna, a partner in the Manhattan law firm Squire Patton Boggs. A convention was last held in 1967, and by all accounts was a complete failure after political insiders who became delegates took control and grouped all proposed reforms into a single vote.
Nonna said if voters approve the proposition in November, there will be elections in each of the state’s 63 senatorial districts in November 2018 to determine the three delegates who will represent each district.
Any citizen can run to become a delegate from their district as long as they get 1,000 signatures from members of their party if they are a Republican or Democrat. Independents would need 3,000 signatures or signatures equaling at least 5 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election in their district, Nonna said. Another 15 at-large statewide delegates would bring the total to 204.
A convention would convene on Apr. 2, 2019, and likely last four to five months. Delegates would be paid at the same rate as a state legislator for the duration of the convention, he said.
While there are many compelling reasons to have a convention, there may be as many against holding one, the panelists stated.
The estimated cost, which would be shouldered by the taxpayers, is between $47 million and $118 million, Robinson said one study revealed.
There is the danger that delegates would also likely be put up and funded by political machines, with the possibility of heavy doses of “dark money” coming into the races, Carlisle said.
While much good could be accomplished with a convention, some citizens fear many of the benefits and protections enjoyed in New York could be taken away. Currently, most unions are opposing a convention, fearful that state pensions could be stripped away.
Others are concerned that longstanding environmental protections could be lost.
However, Carlisle said the best chance of achieving some of the reforms needed in New York is through a convention. The only other way to amend the constitution is through legislation that is approved by the Assembly and Senate for two consecutive years, then have the voters approve a proposition. About 200 revisions have been made over the past 100 years.
“We either have hope or we’re too frightened to proceed,” Carlisle said. “It’s either fright or hope.”
To learn more about a constitutional convention, the panelists suggested visiting the League of Women Voters or the New York Bar Association websites.