The vast majority of the New York State Bar Association’s House of Delegates on Saturday voted in favor of holding a constitutional convention.
One hundred and eleven members of House of Delegates, the decision and policy-making arm of the association, voted in favor of revising the state constitution at a meeting in Cooperstown. Twenty-eight delegates opposed the proposal and one abstained.
Henry “Hank” Greenberg of Greenberg Traurig, who heads the bar’s Committee on the New York State Constitution, said the state constitution is in “need of an overhaul.”
“It’s a 52,500 word behemoth,” he said. “It’s unreadable. It’s not hyperbole. Just try.”
On Nov. 7, voters in New York will decide on the referendum question, “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” The referendum is presented to voters once every 20 years under the state constitution. In 1997, voters rejected the ballot measure.
If the referendum is approved, New Yorkers would elect delegates in 2018 to the convention, which would meet in 2019. At the convention, delegates would get to propose amendments to the state constitution for voter ratification. Then in November 2019, the electorate would get a chance to vote on each proposed amendment.
Roughly two dozen delegates, mostly supporters of a constitutional convention, lined up to make the case for one.
Most supporters argued that a constitutional convention is needed to make much needed ethics reforms and to “modernize” the state’s court system (NYLJ, June 15).
“Our state government is corrupt, dysfunctional, undemocratic, an embarrassment.” said former state bar president Mark Alcott, a partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “The only real practical way to fix it is through a constitutional convention.
“A constitutional convention has no power to change the constitution,” he added. “All it can do is propose changes.”
Former state bar president Stephen Younger, a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler argued that the way the court system operates hasn’t been “looked at in over 40 years.”
“We need to modernize our court system and that’s something we should all care about,” he said. “The Legislature wants to keep things the same. The only way we will get serious court reform is through a constitutional convention.”
The New York City Bar Association on Wednesday announced that it endorsed the ballot measure. Former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who also supports a constitutional convention, has been featured in an ad by the NY People’s Convention PAC, a group founded by Democratic activist Bill Samuels in support of a constitutional convention.
The former president of the city bar, Evan Davis, is managing the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, another group supporting the measure.
Labor unions, which are closely aligned to Democrats who overwhelmingly control the state Assembly, and environmental groups oppose holding the convention, arguing that it has the potential to strip away labor rights and conservation protections that are currently in place.
Some delegates were concerned that a constitutional convention would change Article XIV of the constitution. The so-called “Forever Wild” article designates several portions of the state to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.”
Former state bar president Seymour James, attorney-in-chief of The Legal Aid Society, opposed a constitutional convention, saying low income individuals could run the “risk of an adverse” outcome. James said he was concerned that Article 17 of the state constitution, which provides “aid, care and support of the needy” by the state, could be jeopardized.
Legislative leaders similarly have been cool to the idea. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie oppose a constitutional convention.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who in 2010 embraced a constitutional convention, has been tepid on the issue. In February, he told the New York Daily News editorial board that he had some concerns about it, contending that delegates should differ from legislators.
“You have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that,” the Democratic governor said.
The meeting also honored the late Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, (NYLJ, April 28) the first black woman on the state’s highest court, who died under what the police termed “suspicious” circumstances (NYLJ, May 4.) The cause of her death remains under investigation.
“Sheila was the glue that held a young Court of Appeals together,” said Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey, noting that Abdus-Salaam had a “subtle and complex mind that respected the power and limits of law.”