'Con Con' coming to November ballot

Aug 23, 2017

It may sound like a Broadway musical, but New York State voters this November get to decide whether to stage a "Con Con" that could have a much greater impact.

The State Constitution requires voters be asked every 20 years if they want to hold a convention and they usually do not. The last Con Con was in 1967 and the state's founding document was last given major changes in 1938.

Again this year, there are people out there who support the proposal and others who oppose the plan. Both sides have lots of arguments, including the vast and tangled nature of the current Constitution.

State Bar Association President Sharon Stern Gerstman said the current founding document is broken and cites as an example New York's court system.

"We have 11 different trial courts in the State of New York," she said. "All of them have different jurisdiction, rules, procedures and then for some fairly simple issues, a litigant might have to go to multiple courts."

In a domestic violence situation, Stern Gerstman said a case might be in three different courts at the same time.

Citizens Action's Ellen Kennedy said the danger of a constitutional convention is that rich people might want to spend the money to get rid of protections in the current Constitution that are protected by the slow and tangled amendment process.

"The Constitution currently does protect us in a number of areas, like the environment and education and voting rights, etcetera, so that we don't want to risk any of that being turned around," she said. "I mean there is currently protection for the wild areas of the state."

She said many changes can be made through legislation instead of a Con Con. But Gerstman said rights would not be lost in a convention.

"There has never been a convention that took rights away and every one of those rights that they hold dear came out of a constitutional convention," she said. "It's much more likely that we're going to have the kind of interested citizens that are going to pitch for more rights than anybody who's going to take rights away. Can you really imagine anyone running on a platform of eliminating workers' rights?"

The current Constitution went into effect in 1894 and it was amended in 1938. Gerstman said about half of it is either obsolete or has been thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court.