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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

Sunday, February 25, 2018
NYS ConCon 2017

Constitutional Reform and the Depression: The Convention of 1938

In 1936, pursuant to the mandatory call provision, voters approved the convening of New York’s eighth constitutional convention. For the fourth time, Republicans won a majority of delegate seats. With no clear mandate and no specific constitutional issues, few expected much from the convention. Yet the social and economic issues ignored in 1894 and 1915 could no longer be ignored in the midst of the Depression. Delegates embraced a more sympathetic view of the role of government in society.

The convention proposed numerous additions to the existing Constitution, including:

  • A “bill of rights for labor.”
  • New articles on care of the needy and housing which recognized the state’s responsibility for those who needed support for the necessities of life.
  • Protections against unreasonable search and seizure. However, following one of the most enlightening debates on civil liberties in the annals of New York's constitutional history, the convention rejected an amendment to include an exclusionary rule for unconstitutionally obtained evidence.
  • A provision prohibiting discrimination against an individual’s civil rights on the basis of race, color, or creed which marked the first appearance of an Equal Protection Clause in the state’s Constitution, including protection against private as well as state discrimination.
  • A new article on local finance, which consolidated the various provisions concerning the debt and taxing powers of local governments.
  • A new article on taxation.
  • A new requirement that all amendments be submitted to the attorney general for an opinion on their impact on other sections of the Constitution.
Reflecting a changing understanding of the role of government, convention delegates loosened some of the restrictions placed on the legislature during the nineteenth century, but simultaneously imposed additional restrictions on public authorities and the use of state credit. The convention also sought to avoid submitting the question of holding a convention during a national or state election year, by designating 1957 as the next submission date and every twenty years thereafter as the automatic submission years.

Rather than submitting an entirely new constitution for an “up or down” vote, the convention submitted its work in the form of nine separate amendments, allowing voters to pick and choose which ones they wanted. Voters approved six of the nine, rejecting the three generally viewed to be as partisan.

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