The NY State Constitution
New York’s constitution has been completely rewritten four times: 1777, 1801, 1822 and the most recent one, the constitution we are largely still governed by, was written in 1894, an age of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages. This is a major reason Albany is so dysfunctional and New York so backwards in so many critical areas:
• Our education amendment is from 1894
• Our environment amendment is from 1894
• There is no equal rights amendment for women, LGBT and the disabled, and so on.
Fortunately, in 2017, we can vote for a People’s Convention that can write a twenty-first century constitution for the state to protect all our citizens and all our rights, which are so threatened by today’s extremist national climate. This opportunity was codified in the constitutional convention of1846 that enabled a referendum for a constitutional convention to be offered to the voters every twenty years.
The creation of the 1894 constitution that still largely runs the state today was led by the Platt machine. William C. Platt was the Senator from New York, but more importantly, he was the boss of the Republican Party in New York, with his political base upstate. As a means of limiting New York City’s power, the new constitution provided several mandates applicable only to New York City.
In addition, an education amendment created a system heavily dependent on property tax, so that the richer districts get much more money per student than the poorer districts do, creating massive institutionalized inequities that still plague us today.
There were some changes to the state constitution done at a constitutional convention in 1938, during the New Deal Era and the Great Depression. Some very positive acts were written into the constitution, enabling urban renewal, public housing and other social welfare programs, but it did not change the basic structure or the limited individual rights of the 1894 document.
Thomas C. Platt
The only previous attempt at major change of our state constitution came in 1967 when Howard Samuels lead a bipartisan group to call for a constitutional convention. That convention produced a series of far-sighted improvements to the 1894 document. For instance:
• The political gerrymandering of districts, an issue at the heart of country’s problems today, would be illegal in the state.
• There would be explicit state constitutional protections against discrimination on the basis of age, sex or physical or mental handicap.
• Electronic eavesdropping or surveillance for law enforcement would be explicitly constitutionally limited.
• All public assistance and Medicaid costs not paid for by the national government would be paid by the state budget. There would be no mandated local share that is the cause of our sky-high local property taxes.
• There would be a constitutional guarantee of openness in state government.
To learn more about the 1967 Convention, go here.
Although the 1967 Convention would have improved the state in a myriad of ways, with the Vietnam War and other ideological conflicts at the time, there wasn’t sufficient political will for reform and the constitution was defeated.
The first New York Constitution was adopted in White Plains on April 20, 1777. The convention met in White Plains because the British Army was occupying New York City at the time. New York’s first constitution reads like the hurried job it must have been. It combined the Declaration of Independence with a structure not too different from colonial laws, with a strong governor, a weak legislature, and a property qualification to disenfranchise most men. Women of course, had no vote, and slavery was legal in the state. (It was finally banned in 1827.)
Not long after the Revolutionary War, the constitution became outdated for the growing state. However, there was no means included in the constitution to amend it, so in 1801, the legislature passed “An Act Recommending a Convention.” The following convention made several changes, such as the size of both legislatures.
Governor DeWitt Clinton
Twenty years later there was a power struggle between Governor DeWitt Clinton and the “Bucktails” – a Tammany Society faction of the Democratic Party in the legislature who opposed the Governor’s canal plans. This was also a period where many states were revising their Revolutionary-era constitutions. This moment to another constitutional convention. The convention took place in 1822, was ratified by the voters, 74,732 to 41,402.
The 1822 Constitution solved the canal dispute with the creation of a Canal Board, but it also featured many changes which began to make the system more democratic. This included giving the governor the power to veto legislation and the legislature’s power to override a veto with a two-thirds vote. The Council of Appointment was eliminated, enabling formerly appointed state officers to be elected by the voters instead. Property qualifications for white men were eliminated. In addition, eight Circuit Courts were created to manage the growing load of cases.
Although black men gained the vote, they had property qualifications which drastically limited their suffrage.
The next constitutional convention was held in 1846 and was adopted by a vote of 221,528 to 92,436. This constitution restructured the court system, abolishing the Circuit Courts and replacing them with district benches of the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals was also established. State cabinet officers which had been chosen by the legislature, such as the Secretary of State and Attorney General, were now elected positions.
Perhaps most importantly, in the age of Jacksonian Democracy and its reaction against centralized power, the 1846 Constitution included an amendment unique to New York State, of having a referendum on a constitutional convention every twenty years.
“New York State Constitutional Reform – Past Political Battles in Constitutional Language,” by Richard I. Nunez, William & Mary Law Review, Volume 10 | Issue 2 Article 5