Con Con: No News is Good News

On June 6th, the MA Legislature convened a constitutional convention for the fifth time since the current legislative session began in January 2011.  During each two-year legislative session, members of the House and Senate meet jointly to consider proposed changes to Massachusetts’ Constitution.  The constitutional convention is presided over by the Senate President.  Senators and Representatives meet in the House Chamber to debate and vote on various proposals.  In order for a proposal to get on the constitutional convention’s agenda, proposals must be reported out of legislative committees with either a favorable or unfavorable recommendation.

Recent constitutional conventions – May 11, 2011, July 13, 2011, October 12, 2011 and March 14, 2012 – have recessed quickly without action on any of the pending proposals on the agenda.  At the constitutional convention on June 6th, House and Senate members agreed to recess for three more months indicating little appetite on the legislature’s part to debate or consider any of the amendments on the agenda.  Since constitutional amendments must win approval from two consecutive Legislatures before they advance, it is unlikely that we will see any changes to the state constitution soon.

The current constitutional convention’s agenda consists of 19 amendments – including a proposal for a two-year state budget process, a call for term limits for judges, three proposals that would prohibit eminent domain takings and four proposals that would permanently abolish the Governor’s Council.  Each of these proposals would be a drastic change to the state constitution.

The proposal relative to term limits for judges would require a judge to go before the Governor’s Council every seven years to be eligible for reappointment.  Whether this proposal is politically motivated or considered by some as sound policy is irrelevant.  Massachusetts needs its judges to be independent and impartial.  We want our judges to make fair decisions based on the facts and not on whether they might be up for review and reappointment.

The Governor’s Council – as we’ve written about in Issue Spot – continues to be a topic of much debate.  Some legislators have supported an amendment to abolish the eight-member Governor’s Council and transfer its functions to an independent commission.   Councillors are elected every two years, one each from eight districts.  Among other things, the Governor’s Council is tasked with vetting the governor’s judicial nominees and appointees to the state parole board.  Today, the primary function of the Governor’s Council is to review judicial nominations.  Many recent judicial nomination hearings have made headlines for their contentious nature and close votes.

Whether abolishing the Governor’s Council is a good idea or a bad idea, the Legislature would have to advance the proposal to the next legislative session in order for this amendment to succeed.   In fact, there is no indication that any of the amendments before the constitutional convention will be approved this session.  The process for amending the state constitution is deliberately arduous to preserve fundamental principles and prevent arbitrary changes.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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