The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention
Martin G Evans
Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
Last May, the State Senate and House of Representatives was supposed to sit together as a Constitutional Convention. Several contentious issues were to come before that session. In their wisdom the leadership of the Senate and House adjourned the Constitutional Convention until July 12th.
The most contentious issue (with several proposals) coming before the Constitutional Convention is the issue of how marriage should be defined. The members of the Constitutional Convention are deeply divided on the issue and there are strong lobby groups on either side of the question. Accordingly, the members of the General Court would like to avoid making the tough decision either for or against defining marriage in gender specific terms (one man and one woman). This they can do by adjourning the Constitutional Convention without taking a vote on the issue.
This however would be unconstitutional. The Constitution specifies that if an initiative petition gets sufficient signatures (and the petition in favor of the gender specific definition of marriage did meet the bar handily) then the Constitutional Convention must vote the issue up or down. If the members of the General Court refuse to agree on a time and place to vote on the issue then, under the Constitution, the Governor has to call the Constitutional Convention into being and ensure that a vote is taken. [The relevant section of the Constitution, as amended, states: "and if the two houses fail to agree upon a time for holding any joint session hereby required, or fail to continue the same from time to time until final action has been taken upon all amendments pending, the governor shall call such joint session or continuance thereof."]
There is one other issue on the Table that has been brought there through the petition initiative: the proposal for universal health insurance. Now that the legislature has actually passed a new health-care plan, it should be relatively easily to enshrine such a provision in the Constitution.
There are about ten other issues of importance that are also on the agenda. These include constitutional amendments for:
Many of these issues are non-contentious and need to be addressed in a timely fashion. The legislature, consisting as it does of the elected representatives of the people, has a responsibility to do the peoples' business. Undertaking amendments to the State Constitution is the very essence of the peoples' business. It is to be hoped that the rancor caused by the disputed issues does not mean that important but less controversial issues do not get considered.
- The establishment of a "rainy day" fund
- Creating an Independent Redistricting Commission
- Increasing the availability of Absentee Balloting
A schedule, publicized by the Legislature is, in these days of open, responsible government, a contract between the legislators and the people that they represent. The Legislators of the Commonwealth have broken that contract by adjourning the Constitutional Convention without considering any of the important issues before it. If they try to do so again, the Governor should exercise his constitutional power and call the Constitutional Convention into session, and, if they adjourn again, he should continue to call it into session until the issues are dealt with - especially those coming before the Convention as a result of successful initiative petitions. It is unconscionable, as well as unconstitutional, that those are not being subjected to an up or down vote.
For the Record: I am in favor of gay marriage, universal health care, creation of the "rainy day" fund, redistricting reform, and increased availability of the absentee ballot.