Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Citizens’ Convention Would Address Crisis in Confidence

After 133 years, the Pennsylvania General Assembly should approve an enabling act for a true citizens’ constitutional convention.

In 1872, the citizens of Pennsylvania agreed to convene in a dedicated review of the frame of government. At that constitutional convention, much of the focus was on the abuses of special legislation, disturbing and fraudulent election practices, and the structure of the state’s court system.

The convention lasted just over a year, where these and other issues were hotly debated by statesmen of the day. Although there were court challenges to the proceedings and fractional political groups voicing strong opposition, the press covered the convention faithfully and produced largely favorable editorials.

When Pennsylvanians confronted the new Constitution at a special election, they adopted it by a two to one margin. This was the last time citizens fully participated in such a broad review of government at a convention. Since then, constitutional change has been carried out in piecemeal fashion by the hands of others.

Between 1901 and 1959, 86 constitutional amendments emanated from the legislature. 59 were adopted by the voters. All were minor sectional changes to the document, and as the mood of voters changed from year to year, so did their embrace of amendments.

Running parallel to this incremental and unpredictable path of change were periodic pushes for general revision instigated by various Governors: The Sproul Commission in 1921, a separate pre-depression effort by Gifford Pinchot, the 1935 Earle Advisory Committee and the Woodside Commission in 1959. These efforts all failed to produce any constitutional change whatsoever.

In 1961, an alternative plan was conceived. William Schnader, who led the Earle Committee and was serving as president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, urged the group to get involved. By 1963, 14 committees of the Bar Association produced a comprehensive plan - dubbed Project Constitution - to amend the Constitution in article-sized chunks rather than the small sectional bites taken since 1874.

Governor William Scranton took office in 1962 with constitutional change as a high priority. In 1963 the legislature proposed a convention to the electorate. The Bar Association was prepared to submit its plan to the convention, but the voters refused to authorize one.

Scranton then prompted legislative introduction of several of the Bar Association’s “article by article” amendments. Scranton was term-limited out of office in 1966, but he and successor Raymond Shafer successfully shepherded nine amendments through the legislative and voter adoption processes by mid-1967. At the same time, voters approved a convention to consider the remaining articles and the issue of apportionment.

By the time delegates gathered in Harrisburg, the convention’s preparatory committee, consisting entirely of the Lt. Governor and legislative leaders, had already set the agenda. 69 of the 163 delegates to the convention - including 9 of the 13 preparatory committee members - were lawyers.

The delegates carried out their duties and adjourned just 79 minutes before a mandated deadline. When the convention’s recommendations were approved by the electorate eight weeks later, the citizens’ Constitution of 1874 became history, replaced by something rewritten and rearranged on a wholesale scale by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

While the 1967 convention was indeed of the “limited” variety, it was only because most of the job had already been completed through the Bar Association’s article-by-article amendment process.

To be sure, constitutional change in Pennsylvania since 1874 hasn’t been all bad, but it has only occurred with the sovereign people sitting in the grandstands, relegated to merely ratifying the notions of others rather than molding government in their own hands.

Whenever a crisis in public confidence occurs, any correction or reform must be aimed squarely at the underlying causes. The crisis of the 1870’s was wholly internal, directly caused by actions and abuses within the institutions of government. During the 1960’s, the causes were largely seen as external to government: stunted population growth, the loss of employable young people, and dismal economic conditions.

Clearly, Pennsylvania’s current crisis of confidence more closely resembles the former than the latter. After 133 years, the General Assembly should approve an enabling act for a true citizens’ constitutional convention.

It must be a convention with a deliberate emphasis on the common interest, rather than self-interest. The process must look forward as well as backward, and it must be focused on the structure and integrity of government rather than partisan issues.

At such a convention, Pennsylvanians would shape a government prepared to take on the challenges of the future, restore the virtues of self-governance and blaze a trail for the rest of the nation to follow. Anything less would simply be unacceptable.
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