By Margo Kirchner
Russ Feingold and Peter Prindiville are raising concern about the movement toward a constitutional convention and progressives’ failure to take the movement seriously.
The two discussed constitutional amendments and the contents of their book, The Constitution in Jeopardy: An Unprecedented Effort to Rewrite Our Fundamental Law and What We Can Do About It, with Mike Gousha at an “On the Issues” event at Marquette University Law School on Tuesday.
Feingold is president of the American Constitution Society and a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin. Prindiville is a Washington, D.C., attorney and fellow at the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.
Article V of the Constitution sets forth two ways to amend the document: (1) a proposed amendment supported by two thirds of both houses of Congress, or (2) “on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States,” a convention.
Either path requires subsequent ratification by the legislatures or conventions of three-fourths of the states.
Since the signing of the Constitution in 1787, only 27 amendments have been ratified, with 10 of those a part of the bill of rights in 1791. As noted by Feingold at the event, there has not been a new proposed and ratified amendment for over 50 years.
No constitutional convention has ever occurred.
However, state legislatures have been quietly passing applications for one.
The Wisconsin Legislature passed a joint resolution in January 2022 calling for a convention to curtail the federal government. Its application for a convention was the subject of a recent dispute between legislators and Secretary of State Doug La Follette about mailing the resolution to federal officials.
At the On the Issues event Feingold and Prindiville called any Article V convention dangerous for several reasons.
First, the Constitution provides no rules on how such a convention would be held, they said. The Constitution does not clearly state how delegates are appointed, they said. Nor does it indicate what the parliamentary rules would be or whether anything higher than majority vote would be required to pass new language. “There are no rules for this,” Feingold stated, while Prindiville added that there are is no prescribed forum to resolve disputes that may occur—nothing indicates that the Supreme Court would have any involvement, for instance.
Feingold and Prindiville pointed out that Article V does not provide for involvement of “We the People.” Delegates could be chosen by legislatures, with no citizen involvement, vote, or approval. Feingold noted that the governor “has nothing to do with this.” It’s just the legislatures, and gerrymandered legislatures may not reflect the will of the people, he said.
“There are no rules for this,” Feingold stated.
Also, nothing in the Constitution restricts what gets discussed or reworked at a convention. Except as to equal voting in the Senate (specifically noted in Article V), everything could be “on the table” and “fair game,” Feingold and Prindiville said. Nothing in the Constitution provides a means for reining in what gets discussed and decided at a convention, they said.
A “runaway convention” could include lawyers altering language and rights that would have a profound effect, they warned. Prindiville identified as an example possible elimination of federal-court jurisdiction over civil rights cases.
Then there is the issue of the groups currently pushing for a convention—groups that Feingold and Prindiville say are well funded and aim to gut the federal government.
In addition to state legislatures’ under-the-radar applications for a convention, various groups pushing for a convention have been holding mock events, grooming people to be convention delegates. According to Feingold, the “far right is very good at long-term planning.”
Feingold and Prindiville warned that Americans need to take this movement seriously. Progressives cannot assume that Article V will not be used, they said. Article V is in the Constitution and needs to be discussed and debated now, they said. They want to make amending the Constitution a topic of political debate and even discussion at the dinner table.
Feingold said that those who may call him alarmist have not learned from history. He pointed to the lack of importance given to the “archaic” Second Amendment for years as an example.
To progressives who may support a convention to eliminate the electoral college or proclaim that corporations are not people, Feingold again pointed to the lack of involvement by “the people” in the convention process and the likely control by legislatures and well-funded interest groups.
In addition to raising concern about the movement toward a convention, Feingold and Prindiville propose a way forward by altering Article V to make amendment easier and available to the people rather than just legislators. Feingold noted that the U.S. Constitution is one of the hardest to amend, and Prindiville noted that even George Washington admitted that the Constitution as first ratified had flaws.
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