Remember in 1972 when Texas lawmakers called for a constitutional convention to consider amending our nation’s guiding document to say, “No student shall be assigned to nor compelled to attend any particular public school on account of race, religion, color or national origin.”
Nope, I don’t remember it either.
And do you remember other legislative actions, dating back to 1899, calling for constitutional conventions on topics such as a balanced federal budget, Electoral College changes and legislative apportionment?
Nope, I don’t remember those either.
But Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, is afraid somebody does, so he’s pushing Senate Joint Resolution 53 to rescind every request ever made by Texas to call a constitutional convention for anything. You know all that stuff we said about that stuff? Nevermind, says Estes.
There are two ways to amend the U.S. Constitution. Congress can propose a change and seek ratification from three-fourths of the states. That’s happened 27 times. Or two-thirds of the states can call for a constitutional convention. We’ve had one of those. It was in 1787, and it produced our Constitution.
Since then, lots of states have called for constitutional conventions on specific topics. The two-thirds threshold never has been reached, but lots of requests remain on the books. That’s what worries Estes.
“The point here is that (constitutional) conventions are serious and uncertain events and before we trigger one we need to be absolutely sure of what we do,” he told the Senate State Affairs Committee this week. “By rescinding all of our outstanding requests we (will) have avoided a convention triggered by an old request that has been sitting on the books, forgotten for over 100 years.”
I’ve seen various lists, but it looks like we have 10 to 14 pending requests for constitutional conventions.
Estes’ concern about what might go on at such a gathering is not a new one. In 1988, retired U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger, then chairman of the bicentennial commemoration of the Constitution, wrote that there’d be “no effective way to limit or muzzle” a constitutional convention, which would be a “free-for-all for special-interest groups, television coverage and press speculation.” (Or what some us call solid entertainment.)
Estes wants to erase anything on the Texas books that could contribute to such goings-on. Good idea, said Kelly Holt of Smithville, representing the John Birch Society, who told the Senate committee that a constitutional convention would “have the power to completely trash our existing Constitution and replace it with a completely new and perhaps very different document.”
“Our modern leaders cannot even adhere to the Constitution we have,” she said, “and would very likely abuse the opportunity to create a new one.”
Estes calls his measure the “Gregory Watson Bill” after a longtime legislative aide who brought the matter to the senator’s attention. Watson, a non-lawyer, is an expert on constitutional amendments. He’s the father of one.
In 1982, Watson, working on a college assignment, came upon a proposed congressional pay raise constitutional amendment that had been awaiting ratification since 1789. Under James Madison’s proposal, such raises could not take effect “until an election of representatives shall have intervened.”
Watson worked to get it ratified. The first state to endorse it had been Maryland in 1879. When Illinois did so in 1992, the 27th (and most recent) amendment was added to the Constitution. Watson, now an aide to Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, is known as the “Father of the 27th Amendment.”
Watson told me he’s particularly concerned about Texas’ 1899, and still pending, handwritten legislation calling for “a convention for proposing amendments.” That’s as specific as it gets.
“It’s totally wide open,” Watson said, “so wide open you could drive a truck through it.” State Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, has legislation that would wipe out only the 1899 measure. Elkins’ HJR 101 has cleared committee and probably has a better chance of passing than does Estes’ broader measure.
FYI, in 2011 there were a handful of Texas legislative calls for constitutional conventions. Looks like there is only one this year: Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam’s call for one to “address concerns” raised by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring restrictions on political expenditures by corporations, associations and labor unions.
Little chance, I’d think, that someday we’ll be calling Burnam the “Father of the 28th Amendment.”