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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

Saturday, February 17, 2018
NYS ConCon 2017

A Modern Constitution? The Constitutional Convention of 1967

New Yorkers amended their constitution ninety-three times between 1939 and 1966. Among others, these amendments created departments of commerce and motor vehicles (1943 and 1959, respectively), accomplished court reorganization (1961), added a bill of rights for local government (1963) and established a state lottery to support education (1966). In 1957, voters said no to the question of calling a constitutional convention. However, a series of ground shaking Supreme Court decisions declaring the state’s apportionment scheme a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution precipitated a 1965 legislative call for a constitutional convention. The voters approved. For the first time in over 100 years, Democrats, with the help of liberal party votes, gained control of a constitutional convention.

Although delegates did not mirror the state’s population, they were the most diverse group ever elected to a constitutional convention in New York. Delegates included eleven women; eleven African Americans; seven Hispanics; and a significant number of delegates of Italian, Jewish, and Irish extraction. Two thirds of the delegates were lawyers with one fourth of them judges. The alliance of Democrats, Liberal Party delegates, and civic reformers produced a substantially revised document that made extensive and far-reaching changes.

Among the changes proposed by the convention were:

  • A reduction in the length of the Constitution by half, with the number of articles reduced from twenty to fifteen;
  • The elimination of the ban on aid to sectarian schools;
  • The addition of an exclusionary rule and a conservation bill of rights;
  • The assumption by the state of the cost of all state welfare programs over a ten year period, as well as the cost of the statewide court system;
  • The elimination of the governor’s pocket veto power, balanced by an increase in gubernatorial flexibility in administering the executive branch;
  • The removal of apportionment from the hands of the legislature and its placement with a special independent commission;
  • Provisions that would move the state towards providing free higher education;
  • The reduction of the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen (later achieved by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution);
  • The removal of the requirement that all general obligation debt be approved by the voters.
The delegates produced a more streamlined document, a Constitution designed for an activist state. No constitutional convention in New York was more responsive to the needs of the cities, but its bold initiatives in the area of welfare, education, and community development, among others, proved too much for the voters.

Convention President Anthony Travia, Assembly speaker, submitted the changes as a new Constitution. Voters would have to vote up or down to all the changes: all or nothing at all. That decision proved fatal. Opposition to many of the controversial provisions, combined with tepid support from reformers, resulted in a stunning defeat.

In 1977 and 1997, voters answered “no” to mandatory calls for constitutional conventions, leaving the state with the Constitution of 1894, as amended. The next call will be placed on the ballot in November 2017.

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