Charter Revision in the Empire State: The Politics of New York's 1967 Constitutional Convention

Charter Revision in the Empire State: The Politics of New York's 1967 Constitutional Convention

by Henrik N. Dullea
     
 

Provides an eyewitness record of the people, events, issues, and legacy of this failed convention.

Few citizens know much about the constitution of their state. Some don't even know there is one. Yet state constitutions are basic instruments of our democracy. They structure state and local government and stipulate the rights of citizenship.

In New York

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Overview

Provides an eyewitness record of the people, events, issues, and legacy of this failed convention.

Few citizens know much about the constitution of their state. Some don't even know there is one. Yet state constitutions are basic instruments of our democracy. They structure state and local government and stipulate the rights of citizenship.

In New York State, as in others, the Constitution mandates a periodic vote on whether the state Constitution should be revised. In New York, a mandatory ballot question is put before the voters every twenty years — “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”

Seven months prior to the next such vote — which will be held on Election Day, November 4, 1997 — the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government is publishing companion books on the New York State Constitution — one a sourcebook on constitutional change in New York, the other a rich history of the last constitutional convention held in New York State, that in 1967.

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Editorial Reviews

Daniel C. Kramer
In 1997 the voters of New York State were asked whether a Constitutional Convention should be convoked to amend or replace the State's fundamental charter. To prepare the citizenry for this referendum, the Rockefeller Institute Press issued two books that year. One, DECISION 1997: CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE IN NEW YORK, a collection of essays edited by Gerald Benjamin and Henrik Dullea, was discussed in this REVIEW last October. The other is the work by Dullea that is the subject of this review. Dullea's CHARTER REVISION IN THE EMPIRE STATE, originally his 1982 doctoral dissertation, is an exhaustive study of the happenings at New York State's 1967 Constitutional Convention. He analyzed the roll-call votes of all 186 delegates and interviewed 44 of them in depth. After providing in Chapter 3 a historical overview of the defeat in 1957 of a call for a convention, Dullea notes that the Supreme Court's 1964 decision of WMCA V. LOMENZO (377 U.S. 633) sparked the 1967 gathering. This decision invalidated the State's system of legislative apportionment. Proponents of the Convention hoped that it would devise a scheme that would insure that reapportionment would henceforth be carried out in an equitable manner and also equip the State and its local governments with the constitutional powers to cure the festering problems of racially tense cities. Chapter 4 turns to the delegate nomination and election process. Under the State Constitution, 15 delegates were to be selected at large and three were to be chosen from each Senatorial District -- then 57 in number. To everyone's surprise, the Democratic-Liberal Party coalition won a majority of the district seats. That coalition also obtained 13 of the 15 at-large positions giving it 102 delegates to the Republican-Conservative group's 84. The last part of this Chapter supplies a bird's-eye view of the delegates. For example, women were greatly under- and lawyers highly over-represented; while thirteen state legislators, one Congressman and 28 present or former judges were members. The Democratic majority selected Anthony J. Travia, Speaker of the State Assembly, as the Convention's President. Travia, as Chapter 5 shows, had a free hand in picking the Chairs of Convention committees (where much of the work was done). The proceedings started on April 4th, but it was not until mid-July that propositions began coming to the floor. The Convention closed on September 26th: if it had ended any later, it would have been impossible to get its proposals on the November 7th ballot. Chapters 8 through 13 are the heart of the book: they describe the struggles over proposed changes. Ironically, reapportionment proved to be only a minor issue at the gathering, with the Democrats getting through an amendment giving this job to a bipartisan commission. Whether 18-year olds should be permitted to vote generated much more heat. This question was resolved by a compromise that handed the Legislature the power to set the minimum voting age at anywhere between 18 and 21. This deal garnered only 95 votes, one more than the absolute majority of 94 delegates needed to place an amendment on the ballot. A motion to create a State Department of Criminal Justice failed because it passed only 85-74. Dullea accurately claims that the proposal to repeal the Blaine Amendment was (p. 217) was "the subject of the most intensely, if not closely, fought battle at the 1967 Constitutional Convention...." This Amendment, Article XI Section 3, on its face absolutely bars any state aid to parochial schools (except transportation assistance). The Roman Catholic Church, whose far-flung school system was under severe financial pressures, opposed it. Chapter 9 is devoted to the war over Blaine. Travia, the Convention's Minority Leader (Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges), and a majority of the delegates favored the repeal. As a result the Convention proposed an amendment deleting it and substituting the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. The Liberal Party, the State Council of Churches and black groups wanted Blaine retained. Orthodox Jews (whose yeshivas also needed State aid) joined Catholics in expressing their desire to see it red-pencilled. Chapter 10 deals with both environmental and traditional civil rights and liberties issues. The convention proposed no major changes in these areas apart from the excision of Blaine. No one demanded the repeal of Article XIV, Section 1, requiring that the State's 2.5 million-acre Forest Preserve remain "forever wild". The chapter reveals a couple of surprises. A delegate from a New York City ghetto area was among the most avid fans of "forever wild" even though she confessed that she had "not yet heard a loon, or seen the morning mist rise from Spruce Lake...." (p. 248). Ironically, Democrats rather than Republicans were the most avid defenders of expanding the right to just compensation for private property taken by public authorities. One crucial item on the New York agenda was how to revive the decaying areas of its cities. Chapter 11 discusses proposals, some of which were ultimately adopted by the Convention, to achieve this goal. Of all the delegates, the most ardent supporter of constitutional reforms to modernize State and local governments to enable them to rebuild urban areas and to cooperate on matters transcending local boundaries was Professor Alan Campbell of Syracuse University, Chairman of the Committee on Local Government and Home Rule. The Convention rejected suggestions by Campbell and his allies for the creation of a State Department of Local Affairs and for facilitating the transfer of powers from localities to counties with their broader tax bases, but the required majority of delegates gave thumbs up to his plan for the State to assume local welfare costs. The Constitution contained a rule that voters must approve bond issues in a referendum. Since these issues were sometimes rejected, the State often found itself lacking the funds to undertake major programs of urban revitalization. To skirt this obstacle, the Rockefeller Administration had created several agencies that issued bonds that the State was "morally," albeit not legally, obliged to repay. The Convention proposed ending the referendum requirement on State bond issues and simultaneously limiting State debt service, including that on the borrowings of the "moral obligation" agencies, to a certain percentage of its revenues. The vote here was 95-72. Only one Republican voted for this change while only six Democrats opposed it. The Convention also approved a Community Development article making it easier for the State to lend or grant money to private organizations or local governments to help rebuild poor communities despite a Constitutional clause barring it from making grants or loans to the private or public sectors. Chapter 12 describes the battles over attempts to reform and depoliticize the State's complex judicial system. The presence of so many lawyers and judges at the Convention prevented its recommending any significant improvements here, except for State financing of all courts. The major principle guiding the delegates concerned with this area was turf protection; and the most bitter personal attacks levied at the session involved judges criticizing other jurists. For example, Judge Saul Streit suggested that respected retired Court of Appeals Chief Judge Charles Desmond's idea that the Chief Judge of that Court be permitted to appoint retired judges to temporary judicial duties was motivated by a desire to get himself a part-time job! (p. 308) Chapter 13 details Travia's successful push to have the various amendments approved by the Convention presented to the voters in one package rather than several. The parcel eventually was defeated by a margin of almost 3-1. Had the Blaine and debt-referendum repeal proposals been on the ballot separately, the others might have passed. Chapter 14 studies the ratification campaign, during which groups such as the League of Women Voters, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the State Chapter of the NAACP, prominent Republicans such as Brydges, Assemblyman Perry Duryea, Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson, Senator Jacob Javits, and New York City Mayor John Lindsay, as well as most of the press, urged a "no" vote on the bundle. Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Democratic Senator Robert Kennedy backed it, but only lukewarmly. At times it seemed as if only the Catholic hierarchy and Travia were enthusiastic about it. Chapter 15 examines the background characteristics that affected voting behavior at the Convention. The author furnishes tables indicating quite clearly that party affiliation was the most crucial variable here; but correctly adds that the minority Republicans were hardly an impotent minority and that factors such as New York City versus upstate also played a role. The first 19 pages of his concluding Chapter 16 repeat matters discussed earlier and thus could have been greatly condensed or even omitted. Dullea later provides an update on some of the issues with which the defeated package dealt, e.g., judicial reform, State aid to parochial schools, and State takeover of the local costs of welfare. He follows through on the subsequent careers of some of the Convention's delegates: Campbell became Chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; Abraham Beame and David Dinkins were elected Mayors of New York City; Travia (who died in 1993) and others were appointed to the federal bench. He concludes, and I have to agree, that the Convention was a "magnificent failure;" a failure for obvious reasons but magnificent because (pp. 403-04) Travia and his colleagues "had run a scandal-free Convention, hired a professionally-respected staff, grappled with most of the major issues.... and finished their deliberations on time." This fine volume will be the definitive work on the 1967 Convention: it is inconceivable that any future author will describe it in the loving detail that Dullea provides. His data reinforce the conclusion of O'Rourke and Campbell in their study of the 1938 Convention that this type of gathering is not a "body of supermen, all-wise and non-political, operating in a social-political vacuum...." (p. 21) Dullea also gives us grounds for hope; for delegates from all parties proved themselves capable of supporting changes for the public good (the Community Development article, for example) that did not feather their particular nests. Dullea could have added that the 1967 Convention marked the apex of the New York State liberal tide. Partly because of the City and State financial crises of the 1970s, it is likely that a 1998 Convention, had the voters approved the call for it (which they did not), would have ignored the plight of those in need and pandered to the pocketbooks of the rich and middle-class. There are other flaws in the Dullea effort. For example, he does not satisfactorily explain why one so politically experienced as Travia made the decision to present the Convention's work as a single parcel. It was obvious to most observers even at the time that this sounded the death-knell for the changes he and his colleagues had labored so diligently to produce. (The NEW YORK TIMES' editorial of Oct. 1 opposing a yes vote indicates that the Convention President assumed that Catholics would turn out en masse to vote for it merely because it repealed Blaine.) A short summary of the package in the Chapter on ratification (such as that provided by the TIMES in its Sept. 27 issue) would have helped the reader fully understand the stakes involved in the November 7th referendum. Though the book is for the most part clearly written and holds the reader's attention, its characters are two-dimensional. The author should have sketched the background of a few of the more influential delegates (including Travia). Dullea asserts that the existing Constitution (Article IX, Section 2, he could have indicated) empowers the State to enact legislation related to the property, affairs or government of the cities and that this phrase has been "narrowly construed by the courts to limit local flexibility...." (p. 273). This comment misleads. In fact, the relevant language read literally grants the State this power only under LIMITED circumstances, although the courts have been wont to read the power BROADLY to allow Albany to regulate matters that seem to be primarily of local concern. On p. 356 he comments that "the frequency of highly disciplined 'party votes'.... was less at the Convention then in the recent sessions of the Assembly...." However, the table he provides on the next page indicates that the absolute number of such votes at the Convention was greater than in the Assembly's 1966 conclave, and that the percentage of these votes was much higher there than at the Assembly's 1965 and 1966 sessions. My final caveat is that Dullea's Chapter 16 update to 1997 of his 1982 dissertation is a bit sloppy. To take the most obvious example, he asserts on p. 392 that we have had a "decade" of experience with the U.S. Constitution's 26th Amendment (adopted in 1971) giving 18-year-olds the right to vote! REFERENCES O'Rourke, Vernon and Douglas W. Campbell, 1943, CONSTITUTION-MAKING IN A DEMOCRACY: THEORY AND PRACTICE IN NEW YORK STATE. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780914341499
Publisher:
Rockefeller, Nelson A. Institute of Government, The
Publication date:
03/01/1997
Series:
Rockefeller Institute Press Series
Pages:
449
Product dimensions:
6.11(w) x 9.04(h) x 1.28(d)

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