For those concerned about the pace of change when it comes to issues like legislative redistricting, consider that it was among the topics discussed when delegates from across the commonwealth convened in the Pennsylvania Capitol 50 years ago this month for the first constitutional convention since 1873.
The authorization for the convention in 1967 succeeded only after six previous attempts failed for a number of reasons. Following the defeat of the convention referendum in 1963, several groups such as the Pennsylvania Bar Association committed to rallying public support for the measure. Raymond Shafer, the Republican candidate for governor in 1966, also made the convention a priority during his successful campaign, and followed through with his pledge after winning office.
No doubt one reason reason for the success of referendum was that it was tucked into the middle of a crowded ballot with eight other questions in the spring of 1967. By the time voters got to the convention question, they were likely already in the habit of voting yes and continued for all nine ballot items.
When the delegates gathered that December, they were restricted to considering only issues that had been specified on the ballot question, including legislative redistricting, reducing the size of the General Assembly, and merit selection of appellate judges. This was a disappointment to those who also wanted to consider the adoption of a statewide income tax, but that was eventually enacted in 1971.
After passage of the ballot initiative, each party nominated two candidates from each of the 50 state senatorial districts for election as convention delegates in the fall of 1967, with the top three vote getters being elected to the convention. Among the delegates, there was one former governor (William S. Scranton), two future governors (Dick Thornburgh and Bob Casey), a Pulitzer Prize–winning author (James Michener from Bucks County), a future U.S. attorney (Robert E. J. Curran from Delaware County), and a number of legislative leaders, including future House Speaker Herb Fineman (D., Phila.), and Rep. Robert Butera (R., Montgomery), the Republican Whip. Though a distinguished group tasked with important work, the press and public were generally apathetic.
The delegates were given only 90 days to meet, from Dec. 1 until the end of February. As Thornburgh, Curran, and Butera remembered, this truncated session meant that delegates could not “kick the can down the road.” Also, delegates were forced to sit in alphabetical order, leaving limited opportunities for blatant partisanship caucusing.
Despite this altruistic approach, the convention was not free from pitfalls. As the convention’s secretary, Michener reportedly used invitations to cocktail parties as a means of dispensing favoritism. Some delegates were disgruntled with their committee assignments. And while the convention was not considered “political,” lobbyists still buttonholed delegates for such things as protecting public utilities from the payment of property taxes.
In addition to the 150 elected delegates, state House and Senate leaders were designated ex officio members. As Thornburgh noted, the legislators’ presence was decisive when the first proposal came before the full convention to reduce the size of the Legislature and to reform the redistricting process. By relying on regional affiliations and latent partisan sympathies, those legislative leaders were able to rebuff the efforts to reduce the size of the House and Senate, or to remove the legislative leadership from controlling the redistricting process. Ironically, the convention of 1873 increased the size of the Legislature on the grounds it would be much harder for the corporate barons of the time to bribe so many legislators.
As lawyers by trade, Thornburgh, Curran, and Butera all had a professional interest in the judicial reform proposals. Thornburgh in fact introduced the first resolution of the convention to allow for merit selection of all judges and the elimination of justices of the peace, but all that could be passed was a resolution to reduce the length of judicial terms to 10 years. All five proposals eventually approved by the convention were adopted by the electorate in the 1968 general election.
If a constitutional convention were held today, its members would probably still be tasked with reform of legislative redistricting, reducing the size of the legislature, and judicial merit selection. Though officials such as former Gov. Ed Rendell have argued that any such gathering should also review constitutional language on the state income tax and equitable state funding for education.
Governors can be a driving force in encouraging constitutional reforms, but they can’t do it without the support of citizens. One would have thought the outcry after the pay raise fiasco of 2005 would have led to more substantive changes in state government but there was at best a muted effort to call for a new constitutional convention then. At the end of the day, it still comes back to the question:
Is the public motivated enough to demand change?
Doug Reichley is a Lehigh County Common Pleas Court judge and was a member of the Pennsylvania House from 2003 to 2011. email@example.com