New York City Bar Association Supports Statewide Constitutional Convention

Believing that the opportunity to achieve reforms outweighs reservations regarding the “flawed” delegate selection process and possible risks to “cherished constitutional protections,” the New York City Bar Association’s Task Force on the New York State Constitutional Convention has issued a report in support of convening a statewide constitutional convention.

The Task Force’s recommendation was approved by the City Bar’s President, John S. Kiernan, as well as its Executive Committee.

Every twenty years, New York voters go to the polls to decide whether to call a constitutional convention to revise the New York State Constitution and amend the same. New York voters most recently answered no in 1997. In November 2017, as provided by the State’s Constitution, New York voters will once again face the question of whether to call a constitutional convention.  If the electorate decides to call a convention, delegates will be elected in November 2018 and the convention will convene in April 2019.

“We know that there is no guarantee that a convention whose delegate selection processes are flawed will address and correct the endemic problems of our State government,” the report states. “We also recognize that any risk to cherished constitutional protections is deeply concerning to members of the bar who work tirelessly on behalf of low-income individuals, and those concerns should be given significant weight. But, upon hearing, considering and deliberating the overall pros and cons of holding a convention, and taking into account longstanding City Bar positions, we have ultimately concluded that the potential benefits – primarily in the areas of government ethics, suffrage and judiciary reform – outweigh the potential risks.”

In a rare but not unprecedented move, the City Bar appended an objection from several of its committees, which argues that the risks outweigh the prospects for achieving desired reforms and urges alternative routes for reform.

In 1997, the City Bar’s Task Force, despite finding that the Constitution was in need of significant reform, recommended against a convention due to its concerns with the delegate selection process, the risks of constitutional protections regarding social welfare being weakened, and the power of PAC and special-interest money.

“Twenty years later, there is significantly more momentum for reform than there was in 1997, and there appears to be broader agreement that reforms are particularly needed in the areas of suffrage, government ethics and the judiciary,” the new report states.

The report begins with recommendations to make the delegate selection process “more open, less subject to the control of political leaders and more likely to result in a convention reflective of the will of the State’s population.” It then outlines what the Task Force believes a convention can achieve, highlighting specific reforms including easing ballot access, establishing a truly independent ethics agency and much needed court restructuring.

In explaining why they believe the risks outweigh the potential rewards of convening a convention, the objecting committees write, “We live at a time of great volatility in the electorate, which is fed by unending and sometimes untraceable streams of money that have made elections of all kinds into virtual playgrounds for special interests. There is no reason to put the State Constitution up for grabs in this environment, particularly when each of the reforms the Task Force endorses can be achieved through ordinary legislation or the legislative amendment process.”

The Task Force disagreed that “simply recognizing that the political climate is unstable and that risk exists is reason enough to vote against the calling of a convention.” Instead, the Task Force’s mandate was to ask “a broader question: Taking all of the interests into consideration, are the positive changes that may be achieved in the areas of ethics reform, a reorganized judiciary and expanded voting rights reason enough to support calling a convention? It is the Task Force’s assessment that New Yorkers will continue to stand behind the important provisions of our State Constitution and that we should not forego the opportunity to better our State government merely because we can identify potential risks.” Moreover, “the issues that the Task Force identified as in need of reform are not partisan issues that divide the Legislature. Rather they are hard issues that require serious focus. Though the objection encourages efforts to achieve needed reforms through the Legislature, decades of experience shows that will not happen. A constitutional convention will, we hope, bring a single-minded focus to the task of bettering New York’s government.”

“The Task Force’s report and the submissions by objecting City Bar Committees thoughtfully present the full range of the debate on whether New Yorkers would benefit from a convention,” said City Bar President John S. Kiernan. “Ultimately, the City Bar has concluded that a convention can and should accomplish important positive change in areas central to our  mission of improving electoral, legislative and judicial processes for the benefit of all New Yorkers, and that with appropriate vigilance and education we can guard against any erosion of important existing protections.”

The New York State Bar Association’s House of Delegates is scheduled to consider at its June 17 meeting the question of whether to support, oppose or take no position on the convening of a constitutional convention. (NYSBA Journal, Vol. 89 | No. 5 (June 2017) at 39.) The City Bar has 20 delegates to the House.

UPDATE: On June 17, the State Bar’s House of Delegates voted in favor of holding a constitutional convention. 

The report can be read here:

About the Association
The New York City Bar Association, since its founding in 1870, has been dedicated to maintaining the high ethical standards of the legal profession, promoting reform of the law and access to justice, and providing service to the profession and the public. The Association, through its 24,000 members, continues to work for political, legal and social reform, while implementing innovative means to help the disadvantaged. Protecting the public’s welfare remains one of the Association’s highest priorities.