Delaware has history of calling for constitutional conventions

DOVER — Only once has the United States held a Constitutional Convention. That instance, in 1787, resulted in the dismantling of the Articles of Confederation and the creation of the Constitution and thus, the modern U.S. government.

Since then, however, there have been many calls for another convention, including some that passed the realm of the informal and actually entered state capitols as legislation.
An Article V Convention is one of two ways the U.S. Constitution can be amended. While the Constitution has only been changed through votes in Congress, state legislatures can officially call for a convention to approve any new amendments. If two-thirds pass legislation to such ends, a convention would be convened.

Sen. Bryan Townsend

Sen. Bryan Townsend

Last year, Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, introduced a resolution calling for a convention to override the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, which allowed independent political action committees capable of spending unlimited sums supporting or opposing candidates.

That proposal remains in limbo, but eight other resolutions dating back to the early 1900s have passed the Delaware General Assembly, including five in a seven-year span in the 1970s. Those remained active indefinitely until last month, when the House of Representatives approved a resolution declaring the prior requests for a convention null and void.
Supporters said a convention would open a can of worms.

Because such an event has not been held for more than two centuries, questions abound about any future conventions, including whether only specified topics could be discussed or if anything could be acted upon.

Nationally, supporters say a convention would allow the states to address concerns by writing solutions into the Constitution. Those on the other side argue a convention could have many unforeseen consequences, such as giving more power to heavily populated states, and would raise far more questions than it answers.

Rep. Edward Osienski, D-Newark

Rep. Edward Osienski, D-Newark

“To be on the safe side the scholars have said the best way is to rescind these,” Rep. Edward Osienski, a Newark Democrat who sponsored the measure passed last month, said of prior requests approved by the Delaware legislature.

A glance at the prior requests from Delaware lawmakers provides a snapshot of the times in several instances. While some of the issues may seem silly or irrelevant today (bigamy), others are still hotly debated (abortion).

Prior requests

A 1907 resolution sought an amendment to bar polygamy and polygamous cohabitation. Though this practice is criminalized in the country today, enough people were concerned about it more than a century ago to support organizing the first convention in 120 years.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially banned polygamy in 1890 and reiterated its opposition in 1904.

In 1943, the legislature passed a measure calling for a constitutional amendment to limit taxes to 25 percent. The resolution also sought to repeal the 16th Amendment, which gives Congress power to collect income tax.

Another tax-related resolution was approved in 1971, with Delaware lawmakers aiming to guarantee some federal taxes would be returned to the states.

Five years later, the General Assembly tried, with two separate resolutions, to require a federal balanced budget and to maintain capital punishment’s status as an allowable penalty.

Several states have passed legislation calling for the U.S. government to balance its budget every year.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was often applied in a manner that violated the Constitution’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Four years later, the court held certain guidelines were allowable, and executions began again nationwide after a moratorium.

In 1977, four years after the landmark Roe v. Wade case guaranteed abortion access for women, Delaware called for a federal amendment to protect the lives of unborn children.

The next year, members of the General Assembly passed an act that would have established term limits for federal judges. Nationally, about 200 judges have served on the bench for at least four decades in the country’s history.

The final request for a constitutional convention to be approved by Delaware lawmakers came in 1994, with a resolution to prevent a federal tax from being imposed on the period before it took effect.

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