Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years
Some Pesky Facts About The 1986 Constitutional Convention
1985 RI Constitutional Convention Elected Delegates
The General Assembly kept its pledge that no sitting legislators would run as delegates. Instead, at least seven former legislators won seats to the convention. At least four relatives of sitting legislators were elected, including the Speaker of the House’s son and sister.
While the Convention was in session, 17 delegates filed to run for the General Assembly, at least 5 others filed to run for city or town council, and one filed to run for Governor.
1986 Constitutional Convention Process
The convention was anything but divorced from politics. For political reasons, the Democratic General Assembly and the Republican Governor fought over the timing of the convention – the Governor wanted it held in 1985, and the General Assembly wanted it held in 1986. Politics also decided the order of questions on the ballot; supporters placed an anti-abortion amendment on the bottom in the hope of tamping down the “no” vote.
The Speaker of the House’s choice became Convention Chair.
1986 Constitutional Convention Amendments
The Convention approved so many amendments – 25 – that they had to be bundled to fit on the ballot. As a result, to give one example, if you wanted to approve a “free speech” clause in the Rhode Island Constitution, you also had to vote for a bundled provision restricting constitutional protection for abortion rights.
The most significant amendment was one designed to ban all abortions in the state. It passed the convention with just one more than the 51 votes required. One delegate who voted for the amendment was sworn in that night, for that one session, to take the place of another anti-abortion delegate who had died the week before.
While that amendment was ultimately defeated, a stealth amendment was approved, barring certain constitutional protections from being used to protect abortion rights. That this amendment addressed abortion did not appear anywhere on the ballot summary voters saw in the polling booth, or in the summary provided by the Secretary of State!
Two amendments approved by the voters significantly impacted the rights of racial minorities. One eliminated the right to bail for people charged with certain drug offenses. The other significantly expanded the number of people who lost their right to vote because of a criminal record, including people receiving suspended sentences or probation. (Twenty years later, the General Assembly and the voters overturned this amendment.)
The drug bail amendment, considered in a year when the “war on drugs” was a major campaign issue, followed the General Assembly’s legislative pattern. The bill was defeated in committee, then reconsidered and passed. It was then defeated on the Convention floor, but again reconsidered and passed.
Voter rejected some “reform” amendments approved by the Convention – dealing with four-year terms for state officers, legislative pay, and reforming the judicial selection process – because they were so watered down. In future years, voters would approve them in revised form when they came directly from the General Assembly itself.
Line-item veto, political redistricting, and separation of powers were each considered – and rejected – by the 1986 Convention. Instead, the Convention nearly approved an amendment expanding the legislature’s appointment powers over state commissions and agencies. (The General Assembly later approved a separation of powers amendment.)
Conventions And Voter Initiatives In Other States
Since RI’s convention, in 26 statewide votes, not one other state has voted to hold a convention. Only two of those 26 votes were even close.
Post-1986 ballot initiative campaigns have brought: 18 anti-abortion initiatives in nine states; four initiatives to ban affirmative action; five initiatives to authorize tax credits or vouchers to private and religious schools; five initiatives to ban equal rights for gays and lesbians; nine various anti-immigrant measures; 11 initiatives to bar state participation in the Affordable Care Act; 13 initiatives to ban same sex marriage; and nine initiatives aimed at restricting the rights of public employees.
A “friend of the court” brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court this year by some political scientists noted that “years of empirical research demonstrate that statewide ballot initiatives pose serious obstacles to minority interests that are not present with respect to ordinary political processes such as elections for public officials.” (In that case, the Court upheld a Michigan voter referendum amending the state’s Constitution to bar affirmative action in state university admissions.)
Two RI Constitutional Convention Historical Notes From A Rhode Island Historian
The constitutional amendment providing for the convention question to be asked every 10 years for that was approved at a convention held in 1973. The sponsor of that amendment candidly acknowledges that he got it passed only through “some sleight of hand,” since the convention was not supposed to consider issues like that.
That same person, Rhode Island historian Patrick Conley, was initially retained to serve as the Convention president’s paid general counsel in 1986. Because of a political spat, however, the Speaker of the House called the Convention president “with an ultimatum: either general counsel Conley goes or your convention funding goes.” Conley went, but he remains a big fan of constitutional conventions.