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Proposal: New York State Constitutional Convention

Have you ever wondered how our Founding Fathers created a constitution for a new nation in only 3 pages, but our New York State constitution is 43 pages long?  Here's a chance for the people of New York to come together, engage with experts, comment on and help shape a new state constitution--to fix our broken state government.  

Join us here!  We want to hear from you!

The Issue

Problem Defined

The New York State Constitution contains a provision that gives the public a formal means of combating entrenched interests in Albany. It’s a gift to the people of New York that they can draw upon every 20 years – their right to call a constitutional convention whether the legislature feels it’s necessary or not. The next opportunity for the voters to call a convention will be November, 2017. It’s time to discuss what topics a convention might address. Because any proposals adopted by a convention must be approved by the public in referendum before taking effect, those topics should be ones where the public sees a clear need for improvement.

Background
Expand all bullets
1.
NY State's constitutional convention is an opportunity address a changing worldMORE

Since the first constitutional convention was held in 1776-77 to replace New York’s colonial charter, New York has held eight other constitutional conventions. The Constitution was last entirely rewritten in 1894 at a convention which added the Education and Conservation Articles to establish a system of free common schools and to secure the State’s forest preserve as “Forever Wild.” In 1938 a constitutional convention proposed, and the people subsequently approved, provisions protecting the rights of labor and calling on the Legislature to provide for the aid, care and support of the needy.

2.
A constitutional convention combats entrenched interestsMORE

A constitutional convention, designed to enable the public to overcome entrenched interests, will in all likelihood be opposed by those entrenched interests, including the Legislature. That’s precisely the situation that the Constitution anticipates by giving the public every 20 years the right to convene a constitutional convention. All the entrenched interests will fight hard against a convention to preserve their prerogatives. If a convention is ultimately called, they will also fight to elect Delegates willing to protect those prerogatives. But for all of us a constitutional convention is a unique opportunity to secure needed change, and the election of Delegates committed to needed change has happened before and can be achieved again.

3.
A constitutional convention CONVENES people from ALL parts of the state and from all interest groupsMORE

Those supporting the call of a constitutional convention have an obligation to explain what changes they believe need to be taken up at a convention. To kick off public debate on that need, a group supporting a constitutional convention has been meeting over the past several months to formulate such a list. We come from across the State – Buffalo to Long Island – and bring decades of experience with New York state and local government, either through our work on reform, our public service or other professional interests. We have decided informally to call ourselves the Committee for a Constitutional Convention. All members do not necessarily agree with each potential constitutional change listed below, but all agree that each is worthy of discussion at a convention. Here is our list. It is not exclusive since other topics like the pros and cons of term limits will be debated if a convention is called. But these are topics where the need for change seems most compelling and clear.

Go deeper
1.
New York State Constitution

New York State Legislature - New York Department of State Website (2014)

https://www.dos.ny.gov/info/constitution.htm

First ratified in 1777, the New York State Constitution is now comprised of 20 articles and amendment. It runs 43 pages in single-spaced,small type.

2.
Understanding the 2017 NY Constitutional Convention Question with Bob Schulz

Bob Schulz - Mert Melfa Media (2015)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueHutj1O_k8

Bob Schulz explains the upcoming 2017 NY Constitutional Convention question for voters. He  contends that the people must be the delegates and it is the ultimate conflict of interest if the government and insiders are the delegates because then the government would have a monopoly on reform. Queensbury, NY

3.
NYSCC Committee Working Document: Towards a Digital Constitutional Convention

NYSCC Committee - (2017)

NYSCC Committee Working Document.docx

Planning document covering:

  • Definition and theory of success
  • Governance
  • Marketing
  • Legislative political strategy
  • Community strategy
  • Technology
  • Finances
  • Description and timing of campaign phases
Expert Authors

CITIZENS UNION (CU) brings New Yorkers together to strengthen our democracy and improve our City. Non-partisan and independent, CU helps build a fairer political system in New York that is open to all, values each voice and engages every voter.

COMMITTEE FOR A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION is a leadership group to support advocacy for calling a Convention to convene in 2019 to craft proposals for voter consideration that would make needed changes in the New York State Constitution.

Dick Dadey
Executive Director - Citizens Union

Dick Dadey has served as the Executive Director of Citizens Union since 2004. He believes that an informed citizenry is the cornerstone of a thriving local democracy,

Previously, he was the Executive Director of City Parks Alliance and earlier, New Yorkers for Parks. For six years,he was the Executive Director of New York State PRIDE Agenda.

Dick is a graduate of Syracuse University where he majored in American Studies.

Evan Davis
Senior Counsel - Cleary Gottleib

Evan A. Davis’s practice focuses on litigation and other forms of international and domestic dispute resolution.

He has handled complex securities, merger and acquisition, contract disputes, art and museum restitution law, and insurance coverage litigations. He has extensive arbitration and mediation experience in complex domestic and international commercial cases as a party-appointed arbitrator, an arbitration tribunal chair, a mediator and an advocate in arbitration and mediation.

Evan is a recognized authority on New York law and has argued frequently in the New York Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court. He has also provided expert opinions on matters of professional ethics. He served as President of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York from May 2000 through May 2002, and as Vice Chair of the Trustees of Columbia University, where he also chaired the Finance Committee. He has been recognized by Benchmark Litigation: The Definitive Guide to America’s Leading Litigation Firms and Attorneys, Who’s Who in the World, Euromoney’s Guide to the World’s Leading Experts in Commercial Arbitration, Law Business Research’s The International Who’s Who of Business Lawyers and Who’s Who of Commercial Litigators, Mondaq’s Guide to the World’s Leading Commercial Arbitration Advisors, The Legal 500 U.S. and The Best Lawyers in America.

Clients for whom he has recently worked include Bank of America (arbitration), Barclay’s Bank (securities litigation and contract arbitration), Lloyds of London (Beazley syndicates) (insurance coverage), General Electric (insurance coverage), the American Museum of Natural History (Native American claims litigation), the Guggenheim Foundation and MoMA (art law litigation), Sharp Corporation (commercial litigation), United Technologies Corporation (arbitration and trade practices litigation), Fitch, Inc. (securities litigation), Goldman Sachs (creditors rights and antitrust litigation), HSBC (securities litigation) and KBC, D.E. Shaw, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Calamos and others (commercial litigation).

Evan began work at the firm in 1975 and became a partner in 1978. In September 1985, he left the firm to serve as Counsel to New York State Governor Mario M. Cuomo, rejoining the firm in February 1991. Evan became senior counsel in July 2012.

Evan was awarded the Medal for Excellence by Columbia University in 1987, the Emory Buckner Award for Distinguished Public Service by the Federal Bar Council in 1990, an environmental award by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1995, the Milton Gould Award for Outstanding Appellate Advocacy by the Office of the Appellate Defender in 1996, the William J. Brennan Jr. Award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse by the Brennan Center in 1999, the Law and Society Award by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest in 2000, the 1846 Award by the New York Correctional Association in 2001, the Whitney North Seymour Award by the Federal Bar Council in 2002, the Servant of Justice Award by the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 2004 and the Servant of Justice Award by the Legal Aid Society in 2008. He was the honoree at the New York City Bar Twelfth Night musical roast in 2010. He was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General in 1998.

Evan is a member of the American Law Institute, and the board of Governors of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, New York. He is a Director of the Center for Family Representation and Episcopal Charities, a Trustee of The Spence School where he heads the Admissions Committee and is a member of the Advisory Council of New York Common Cause and the Advisory Board of Disability Rights Advocates. He is a Warden of Trinity Church Wall Street. He formerly chaired the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Public Education and its Commission on Youth Education for Citizenship.

The Solution

Proposed Actions
Expand all bullets
1.
1. End legislative dysfunction and corruptionMORE

The old adage, “If it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” has no application to the New York State Legislature. Our Legislature is beset by breaches of the public trust and outright corruption, and by enormous money-based conflicts of interest. Bribes are concealed as income from outside business dealings. Campaign contribution limits set by the Legislature are too high to avoid the obvious appearance that an office holder will be beholden to the contributor. Bills called “midnight specials” surface for the first time in the middle of the night and are passed immediately so the public will have no chance for input. The process is controlled by the “three men in a room” and is often closed to the public and minority party members.. There is no independent ethics enforcement, and the existing ethics body, JCOPE, is called “J-JOKE” in Albany. New York’s election districts are grotesquely gerrymandered to assure reelection and maintenance of existing political party control.

Needed changes:

  • Establish an effective ethics enforcement agency independent of elected officials’ control;
  • Shift the power to set campaign contribution limits from the Legislature to the new ethics enforcement agency;
  • Limit outside income for legislators, which creates conflicts and is used as a vehicle to conceal corrupt payments and use public office for private gain;
  • Shift redistricting power from the Legislature to the courts or an independent districting commission to end gerrymandering for incumbent and political party protection;
  • Improve the opportunity for public and minority party input into the legislative process by expanding requirements that allow for public review of and discussion about proposed legislation.
2.
2. Reform our election systemMORE

Someone from Mars reading our Constitution would think we didn’t want people to vote. Measures to make it more convenient to vote, such as those adopted in many other states (voting by mail and early voting, for example) are barred by our Constitution. No wonder New York ranks 46th nationally in percentage voter turnout.

Needed changes:

  • Eliminate constitutional bars to early voting and voting by mail;
  • Let government take the initiative in automatically registering voters;
  • Make Boards of Election independent and supported by a non-partisan staff;
  • Encourage broader participation in choosing office holders including consideration of the California “Top Two” primary system.
3.
3. Secure a clean and healthy environmentMORE

The New York Constitution has provisions for conservation and protecting the forest preserve as “Forever Wild.” Like the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, we cherish this provision. However, the environment is mentioned only in the context of natural resource management, and no mention is made of climate change. Other States have enacted an Environmental Bill of Rights to further secure a clean and healthy environment including clean water to drink and healthy air to breathe.

Needed change:

  • Extend to the environment the State’s existing constitutional commitment to conservation so as to ensure healthy air to breathe, clean water to drink and progress in addressing the causes and consequences of climate change.
4.
4. Secure a basic education to prepare students for the futureMORE

New York’s top Court has held that our Constitution guarantees every New York student a sound basic education through high school. This promise of a free public school education is a basic to our State’s commitment to the future and therefore should be a top priority. However, the cost of providing such a sound basic education, which should include the opportunity to be ready for college or other advanced training for a career, is not being met in every part of the State. As a result, some public schools, particularly in economically depressed areas, are seriously inadequate. Also our Constitution makes no mention of higher education, which is essential for many careers in the 21st century.

Needed changes:

  • Better secure in every community the right to a sound basic public school education through high school;
  • Mandate readily affordable and debt-free tuition at public institutions of higher education.
5.
5. Make civil rights protections enforceable and demosntrate accountabilityMORE

Since 1938 the New York Bill of Rights has contained a civil rights provision which reads as follows:

“No person shall, because of race, color, creed or religion, be subjected to any discrimination in his or her civil rights by any other person or by any firm, corporation, or institution, or by the state or any agency or subdivision of the state.”

This strong-seeming provision, however, is illusory. New York courts have refused to make it enforceable. In 1949 New York’s highest court ruled that because the provision is not self-executing[1] the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which owned the Stuyvesant Town complex of rental apartments, was entitled without violating this provision to enforce an openly declared policy of not renting to African Americans. The provision also is too narrow. It is limited to barring racial and religious discrimination. Today we recognize the wrongfulness of other forms of public and private discrimination.

Needed change:

  • Make the Civil Rights provision in our Bill of Rights enforceable and expand its scope, now limited to race and religion, to address other forms of discrimination that prevent equal opportunity for all New Yorkers.
6.
6. Extend social welfare to middle class facing lacking basic needsMORE

In 1938 New York amended the Constitution to charge the Legislature to care for the needy. This is an area in which New York has long led the way. Today, however, the middle class also faces increasing problems with the affordability of goods and services needed for a basic standard of living. These affordability issues are particularly acute when lack of affordability threatens especially grave harm. One clear example of this situation is basic health care coverage which is unaffordable for many. Another example is the inability to afford counsel to defend against grave threats such as an eviction threatening homelessness or domestic violence in a marriage or other relationship.

Needed change:

  • Expand the Constitution’s call to the Legislature to care for the needy to include situations where lack of affordability for the middle class threatens especially grave harm.
7.
7. Stop state mandates which override local controlMORE

While our Constitution lays out the home rule powers of local governments and purports to protect them against special state legislation, these provisions have been weakened by judicial decisions. The Legislature has also seen fit to impose many mandates on local governments without providing the funding needed to carry out those mandates. To avoid tax increases, localities then have to reduce spending for local priorities.

Needed changes:

  • Make unfunded mandate legislation hard to pass by requiring heightened local fiscal impact analysis and ample opportunity for community input;
  • Strengthen local legislative autonomy by limiting state preemption;
  • Strengthen the requirement for a Home Rule Message before enacting legislation aimed at a particular local government.
8.
8. Simplify our judicial systemMORE

The Judiciary Article of our Constitution, which runs to over 16,000 words, has four major flaws. First is the staggering and outdated complexity of our judicial system. Second, while we pretend to elect Supreme Court judges under the Constitution, in reality they are most often picked by party leaders. Third, all intermediate appellate court judges must be chosen only from among the elected Supreme Court judges. Excluding other judges and non-judges from the pool that can be considered prevents consideration of many well-qualified candidates. Finally, the Constitution organizes the State into four Judicial Departments, each of which has an intermediate appellate court. Four such courts do not provide sufficient coverage, and delays result. California, for example, has six intermediate Courts of Appeal.

Needed changes:

  • Consolidate our outlandishly complex court structure;
  • Abolish judicial selection by political party leaders;
  • Expand the pool of candidates eligible for appellate court appointment;
  • Increase the number of intermediate appellate courts.
Expected Results
Expand all bullets
Budget
Budget Impact
Net Present Value

The Conversation

Maria Anderson
Executive Director
3 years ago
Extending welfare to the middle class can and should be a part of our new constitution, but not at the expense of those who need it most. Even with the provisions made in the current constitution, New York's unemployed and working class citizens are too often left without the voice they deserve.
3 years ago
Streamlining America's judicial system should be one of our top priorities. There are individuals who, after being arrested on suspicion of a crime, are stuck in a sort of "legal limbo" during which they wait for months to get their day in court. That is not an efficient way to run an institution, and it does the American people a disservice.
Andrea Meyers
President
3 years ago
What steps will a new Constitution take to secure the future of our museums and historical buildings and make the arts more accessible to all New York citizens?
3 years ago
When considering the concept of reforming America's election system, a focus on nonpartisanship should be key. Having commissions or boards that are completely unbiased and free from partisan influence is very important to ensuring that our democracy works as it should.
3 years ago
We cannot afford to not invest in a higher quality environment and education system for our children. Our state constitution needs to get with the times and plan for the future!
3 years ago
I agree 100%. Creating a better New York for future generations should be our number one priority.
3 years ago
I like the idea of extending social welfare to the middle class, but if social welfare programs are continually extended, where does it end? Shouldn't we be debating what exactly "middle class" means then, if someone supposedly in that category can't afford basic goods and services?
3 years ago
I strongly agree with the principle of keeping the state legislature from imposing unfair provisions on local governments. As someone who is both very involved in my community and has worked in Corporate America for many years, I have seen first-hand how these mandates have negatively affected both local governments and local economies directly. Something definitely needs to change.
3 years ago
Legislation specific to a local government should be created by the local government. Returning power to the local legislature is an essential step towards reducing government inefficiency.

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