Nullification vs. Article V Constitutional Convention: Where is the Honest and Open Discussion?
Published: Tuesday, December 29th, 2015 @ 1:36 pm
By: Diane Rufino ( More Entries )
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When the original 13 states came together to discuss the possibility of establishing a confederacy, at the urging of Benjamin Franklin ("Join or Die"), they did so with a great deal of hope, but also a great deal of trepidation. The hope was that a federal government might be formed that could provide greater security and stability to the colonies. The hope was that it might handle the few issues that were common to all the states but which could not be dealt with by the states individually. The fears, on the other hand, were that this government might come to gain an enormous amount of power; that this power might come to be concentrated in the hands of very few; and that the federal government as a whole might end up overreaching its authority and end up meddling in affairs that ought rightly to be left to the states and the various local governments (if not individuals themselves).
The Constitution created a limited government, which is evidenced in four obvious ways: (1) The Constitution was framed in such a way that the power of the federal government would be split between three separate branches - each acting as a check-and-balance on the power of the others; (2) The power of the federal government as a whole was limited to certain specific areas; (3) Government power structure was split between two co-equal sovereigns - the individual states and the federal government (emphasized or restated by the Tenth Amendment); and (4) A Bill of Rights ("further declaratory statements and restrictive clauses to prevent the government from misconstruing or abusing its powers..") to put further limitations on government power.
For 200 years, this structure has been eroded, always at the hand of the federal government. After numerous overt acts of usurpation, constitutional amendments, and loose interpretations of the Constitution itself, each of the branches of government has managed to seize more power than it was ever meant to have. Now, as we see and feel most acutely, the federal government involves itself in matters that are neither federal in nature nor are subject to its jurisdiction. It insinuates itself into virtually every aspect of public and private life, including political, economic, and social. When we listen to a young mother in Alabama cry because the new healthcare mandate has increased her insurance premiums each month by over $100 and has presented her with a dilemma that is causing her great heartache and distress (she wants to work and do the right thing, but if she does, she can't afford the increase in healthcare premiums, and so she is faced with the choice that puts and her family on welfare), then we understand how destructive the government has become and how far it has strayed from its intended purpose.
Those who support Nullification have put the alert out years ago. They assert that the federal government can rightfully be divested of such unconstitutional power by having the States call the government out on its conduct and refusing to enforce unconstitutional laws. But Nullification is not a term or a concept that the average American has heard before and so it has not been roundly embraced. But it is catching on finally. In fact, support is growing exponentially. As more and more people (Thomas Woods and Mike Church, for example) and groups (The Tenth Amendment Center) educate those who are willing to listen, audiences are finding that it makes sense and is indeed a constitutional and viable remedy.
And then there are others, such as famed radio personality, Mark Levin, who advocate for a different approach. Mr. Levin recently wrote a book entitled "The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic," in which he proposes what he believes is the ONLY viable solution to restoring constitutional governance, which is an Article V State Convention.
In his book, Mr. Levin writes:
I undertook this project not because I believe the Constitution, as originally structured, is outdated and outmoded, thereby requiring modernization through amendments, but because of the opposite - that is, the necessity and urgency of restoring constitutional republicanism and preserving the civil society from the growing authoritarianism of a federal Leviathan. The Statists have been successful in their century-long march to disfigure mangle the constitutional order and undo the social compact. To disclaim the Statists' campaign and aims is to imprudently ignore the inventions and schemes hatched and promoted openly by their philosophers, experts, and academics, and the coercive application of their designs on the citizenry by a delusional governing elite. Their handiwork is omnipresent, for all to see - a centralized and consolidated government with a ubiquitous network of laws and rules actively suppressing individual initiative, self-interest, and success in the name of the greater good and on behalf of the larger community. The nation has entered an age of post-constitutional soft tyranny...
Unlike the modern Statist, who defies, ignores, or rewrites the Constitution for the purpose of evasion, I propose that we, the people, take a closer look at the Constitution for our preservation. The Constitution itself provides the means for restoring self-government and averting societal catastrophe in Article V. Article V sets for the two processes for amending the Constitution, the second of which I have emphasized in italics:
The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two-thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three-fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress...."
Importantly, in neither case does the Article V amendment process provide for a constitutional convention. The second method, involving the direct application of two-thirds of the state legislatures for a Convention for proposing Amendments, which would thereafter also require a three-fourths ratification vote by the states, has been tried in the past but without success. Today it sits dormant.
The fact is that Article V expressly grants state legislatures significant authority to rebalance the constitutional structure for the purpose of restoring our founding principles should the federal government shed its limitations, abandon its original purpose, and grow too powerful, as many delegates in Philadelphia and the state conventions had worried it might. [Levin, pp. 1-13]
Levin then goes on to propose a set of eleven (11) Amendments - which he terms "Liberty Amendments" - that an Article V Convention might want to propose in order to rebalance the government (the creature created by the Constitution): These proposed Amendments include: (1) term limits for members of Congress; (2) the election of Senators to be returned to state legislatures; (3) term limits for Supreme Court Justices (and the opportunity for federal and state legislatures to override Supreme Court decisions with a supermajority); (4) limits on federal spending (with an eye to curbing federal debt); (5) limits on taxation; (6) limits on how much power Congress can delegate to the federal bureaucracy; (7) limiting the federal government from interfering with economic activity that does not pertain to interstate or international trade; (8) requiring the government to compensate property owners for the devaluation of property caused by regulations; (9) allowing the states to amend the constitution directly (without having to go through Congress); (10) granting states the right to overturn the laws and regulations of Congress with a supermajority; and (11) requiring voters to produce photo identification at election booths.
Notice that Mr. Levin writes that "in neither case does the Article V amendment process provide for a constitutional convention." Why would he include that statement? Both conservatives and liberals have routinely referred to an Article V "Convention for proposing Amendments" as a "Constitutional Convention" or Con-Con for well over 30 years, and likely much longer. Is it possible that they ALL have mistakenly assumed that the words "constitutional convention" are found in Article V? Is it possible the government itself is also mistaken? When the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on November 29, 1979, regarding the role of Congress in calling an Article V convention, the official name of the hearing as published by the Government Printing Office in a 1,372-page document was "Constitutional Convention Procedures." This hearing was held because the number of states petitioning Congress to hold an Article V convention to propose a balanced budget amendment was rapidly approaching the necessary 34 states.
And what about the "populist lovefest," better known as the Harvard Conference on the Constitutional Convention, held at Harvard on September 24-25, 2011, which was cosponsored by the Harvard Law School and (surprisingly) by the Tea Party Patriots as well? Of course, Levin's book "The Liberty Amendments" hadn't been published yet, so the people at Harvard and the Tea Party Patriots didn't realize that they were using a forbidden phrase, "constitutional convention," to refer to an Article V convention.
Perhaps it's worthwhile to take a look at that Conference and watch videos of the various panel discussions to understand why holding a constitutional convention could open Pandora's Box. The host of the Conference, Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, and the moderator of the Closing Panel, Richard Parker, both committed populists, advocated for greater democracy in our country. They believe more and more issues should be decided by popular vote. (Parker can trace his political history back to the 1960s organization, Students for a Democratic Society). They believe that holding an Article V constitutional convention will help get them where they want to go.
Perhaps the reason Levin wants to deny the validity of the phrase "constitutional convention" is that one of the most persuasive arguments against holding such a convention is based on the contention, the criticism, and indeed the fear that such a convention could become a "runaway" convention based either on the inherent nature of "constitutional conventions" or on what transpired at our original "Constitutional Convention" in 1787.
How is it that Mr. Levin is convinced that an Article V convention could never become a "runaway" convention? On page 15 of his book he writes: "I was originally skeptical of amending the Constitution by the state convention process. I fretted it could turn into a runaway convention process.... However, today I am a confident and enthusiastic advocate for the process. The text of Article V makes clear that there is a serious check in place. Whether the product of Congress or a convention, a proposed amendment has no effect at all unless 'ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof...' This should extinguish anxiety that the state convention process could hijack the Constitution."
So, in this excerpt, Levin admits that he shares the concerns of others that an Article V convention could turn into a "runaway convention." Yet he is confident that he has overcome those concerns with his belief that "Article V makes clear that there is a serious check in place," namely the requirement of ratification of amendments by three-fourths of the states. There are several reasons why Levin should not be so assured that this is a "serious check" in place to stop a runaway convention. Larry Greenley points these reasons out in his article, "Levin's Risky Proposal: A Constitutional Convention":
First, the "ratification by three-fourths of the States" requirement of Article V already has failed to prevent undesirable amendments from being ratified. Consider the 16th Amendment (the federal income tax), the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators), and the 18th Amendment (prohibition). All three were ratified by at least three-fourths of the states, but most constitutionalists would likely agree that all three were bad amendments and should not have been ratified. In particular, many constitutionalists think that changing the method of choosing U.S. senators from appointment by state legislatures to direct election by the voters in each state as provided by the 17th Amendment has been extremely damaging to our constitutional republic. James Madison spoke ever so strongly for this important design feature at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, in his rebuttal of Patrick Henry who accused the Constitution of potentially granting too much power to the federal government. "The deliberations of the members of the Federal House of Representatives, will be directed to the interests of the people of America. As to the other branch, the Senators will be appointed by the State Legislatures, and secures AN ABSOLUTE DEPENDENCE OF THE FORMER ON THE LATTER." The Senate was a direct "federal" element within the very design of the federal government. Its power to refuse to approve a legislative act of the House that is against the reserved powers and interests of States is precisely what the doctrine of Nullification provides.
Second, it is hard to predict just how much pressure the American public can put on state legislators or state convention delegates to get some future undesirable amendment or amendments ratified by the three-fourths rule. We all know what happens when big money and special interests groups send out their tentacles. When big money, special interest groups, and political power pour in to try to influence the delegate-selection process and the convention business itself, the people lose their voice. Experience has shown that we can't trust public servants once they go behind closed doors. We saw what happened with the healthcare bill.
Third, it is quite possible that an Article V constitutional convention would specify some new method of ratification for its proposed amendments. After all, our original Constitutional Convention in 1787, an important precedent for any future constitutional convention, changed the ratification procedure for the new Constitution from the unanimous approval of all 13 state legislatures required by the Articles of Confederation to the approval by 9 state conventions in Article VII of the new Constitution.
But for those who are not quite comforted by Levin's argument that Article V provides the very means to control its convention, he offers still another method to ease our concerns about a runaway convention. On page 16, he quotes from Robert G. Natelson, a former professor of law at the University of Montana: "[An Article V] convention for proposing amendments is a federal convention; it is a creature of the states or, more specifically, of the state legislatures. And it is a limited-purpose convention. It is not designed to set up an entirely new constitution or a new form of government." Too many others, including notable intellectuals, constitutional scholars, and even former US Supreme Court justices beg to disagree on this point.
Many constitutionalists will also agree that Levin is encouraging Americans to play with fire by promoting a constitutional convention. Just because the Constitution authorizes Article V conventions to amend the Constitution doesn't mean that it would be wise at this time in our nation's history to call one.
While pro-Article V convention enthusiasts tell us that this is a great time for an Article V convention because the Republican Party controls 26 of the 50 state legislatures (the Democrats control 18, five are split, and one is non-partisan), and therefore could surely block the ratification of any harmful amendments proposed by an Article V convention, they are omitting from this analysis that very many of the Republican state legislators are not constitutionalists, and could end up in alliance with Democrats to ratify some harmful amendments. Not to mention the likelihood that constitutionalists would be in the minority at the convention for proposing amendments itself.
There is no doubt that Mr. Levin has done his homework with respect to the Article V Convention. But it is clear from the strong and sometimes rabid response to his book that he has not made the case strong enough to quell the legitimate fears of many who believe such a Convention is akin to opening a can of worms. I use the expression because it means: "something that (often unexpectedly) sets in motion that which has unanticipated and wide-reaching consequences." Or as TN Tenth Amendment Center leader Michael Lotfi puts it: "An Article V constitutional convention of the states is not the right answer; it is the bullet to a loaded revolver pointed at the Constitution." Knowing that the Nullification movement is gaining momentum, Levin made it a point, in promoting his book, to try to discredit the "rightful remedy" of Jefferson and the "duty of the states" approach of Madison. He did not do it in a civil, educated manner but rather resorted to referring to Nullification as "idiocy" and Nullifers as "kooks." I imagine that if Thomas Jefferson were listening to Mark Levin's assertion of how to address a government that willingly and defiantly passes unconstitutional laws, he would think he was a "kook."
I would also think that Jefferson would conclude that people who think narrowly, as Levin does in his book and in his commentary to promote his book (including the rejection of nullification) are incapable of saving a republic that is on the brink of imploding.
The only object upon which the Constitution acts is the federal government. It is its playbook; it defines its jurisdiction. It is also its restraining order. Yet each time the government did not wish to be confined by it, it used one of the three branches (most notably the Supreme Court) to reinterpret it and enlarge government powers, regardless that the ONLY way the government can rightfully be altered is by amendments (Article V). The point is that the government has refused to adhere to the limitations set forth in the Constitution.... the limitations that the States demanded and relied upon when debating and deciding whether to relinquish some of their sovereign power and ratify the compact that formed the government. So here is Levin's solution: Even though the Constitution clearly defines the government's powers and sets forth limitations, and even though the government has repeatedly and systematically refused to adhere to those limitations, he believes the only way to limit the government going forward is to make the States go through a series of hurdles (Article V's requirements) in order to try to add a new set of restrictive amendments. Levin himself has pointed out that such a State Convention may not successfully happen and even if it does, it may take up to 20 years or more add such amendments. We can predict what will happen. The government will ignore them or quickly find a way to erode them or get around them. There is no guarantee that the amendments will restore the proper balance of power in government. According to Levin, the parties who have been the victims of the government's usurpations, the States and the People themselves (the rightful depositories or reservations of sovereign power) - have no other recourse or remedy except to take their slim chances with an Article V State Convention, a remedy that has NEVER been used before and hence has no proven record of success. In other words, the States and the People MUST abide strictly by the provisions of the Constitution when the federal government has never done so. Levin stands by his proposition even though the people of the states already have the extra-constitutional right to convene a constitutional convention by virtue of the Declaration of Independence. That's exactly what the Philadelphia Convention was... an exercise of this right (which is referred to as the Theory of Popular Sovereignty), because the Articles of Confederation created a so-called "perpetual Union."
Article XIII of the Articles read: "Every State shall abide by the determination of the United States in Congress assembled, on all questions which by this confederation are submitted to them. And the Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State..... And that the Articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the Union shall be perpetual."
The Theory of Popular Sovereignty wasn't just the design of men like Thomas Jefferson (VA), John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Roger Sherman (CT) and Robert R. Livingston (NY), the committee appointed on June 11, 1776 by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence, it was indeed a consensus notion among the whole of our Founding Fathers. Consider for example what Edmund Pendleton, president of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, said to the delegates on June 5, 1788:
We, the people, possessing all power, form a government, such as we think will secure happiness: and suppose, in adopting this plan, we should be mistaken in the end; where is the cause of alarm on that quarter? In the same plan we point out an easy and quiet method of reforming what may be found amiss. No, but, say gentlemen, we have put the introduction of that method in the hands of our servants, who will interrupt it from motives of self-interest. What then?... Who shall dare to resist the people? No, we will assemble in Convention; wholly recall our delegated powers, or reform them so as to prevent such abuse; and punish those servants who have perverted powers, designed for our happiness, to their own emolument.
Although there are some ambiguities in this passage, Pendleton appears to be assuring the delegates that if the Constitution turned out not to secure happiness for Americans, then it could be reformed by the "easy and quiet" methods of Article V. However, if the Article V process were to be subverted by "our servants," the state and federal legislators, then We the People (the sovereign people) would assemble in convention, wholly recall and reform the delegated powers of the Constitution, and punish the offending servants.
Former US Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg addressed the topic of a Constitutional Convention with skeptism back in 1986. He wrote:
As we look forward to celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution, a few people have asked, "Why not another constitutional convention?"
I would respond by saying that one of the most serious problems Article V poses is a runaway convention. There is no enforceable mechanism to prevent a convention from reporting out wholesale changes to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Moreover, the absence of any mechanism to ensure representative selection of delegates could put a runaway convention at the hands of single-issue groups whose self-interest may be contrary to our national well-being.
A constitutional convention could lead to sharp confrontations between Congress and the states. For example, Congress may frustrate the states by treating some state convention applications as invalid, or by insisting on particular parliamentary rules for a convention, or by mandating a restricted convention agenda. If a convention did run away, Congress might decline to forward to the states for ratification those proposed amendments not within the convention's original mandate.
History has established that the Philadelphia Convention was a success, but it cannot be denied that it broke every restraint intended to limit its power and agenda. Logic therefore compels one conclusion: Any claim that the Congress could, by statute, limit a convention's agenda is pure speculation, and any attempt at limiting the agenda would almost certainly be unenforceable. It would create a sense of security where none exists, and it would project a false image of unity.
Opposition to a constitutional convention at this point in our history does not indicate a distrust of the American public, but in fact recognizes the potential for mischief. We have all read about the various plans being considered for Constitutional change. Could this nation tolerate the simultaneous consideration of a parliamentary system, returning to the gold standard, gun control, ERA, school prayer, abortion vs. right to life and anti-public interest laws?
As individuals, we may well disagree on the merits of particular issues that would likely be proposed as amendments to the Constitution; however, it is my firm belief that no single issue or combination of issues is so important as to warrant jeopardizing our constitutional system of governance at this point of our history, particularly since Congress and the Supreme Court are empowered to deal with these matters.
James Madison, the father of our Constitution, recognized the perils inherent in a second constitutional convention when he said an Article V national convention would "give greater agitation to the public mind; an election into it would be courted by the most violent partisans on both sides; it would probably consist of the most heterogeneous characters; would be the very focus of that flame which has already heated too many men of all parties; would no doubt contain individuals of insidious views, who under the mask of seeking alterations popular in some parts but inadmissible in other parts of the Union might have a dangerous opportunity of sapping the very foundations of the fabric. Under all of these circumstances, it seems scarcely to be presumable that the deliberations of the body could be conducted in harmony, or terminate in the general good. Having witnessed the difficulties and dangers experienced by the first convention which assembled under every propitious (promising) circumstance, I would tremble for the result of a second."
Let's turn away from this risky business of a convention, and focus on the enduring inspiration of our Constitution.