In Tuesday’s edition of IowaPolitics.com, Senator Mike Gronstal, Democratic Majority Leader of the Iowa Senate, when asked about the prospect for an Iowa constitutional convention, is quoted as saying “[i]t will give me a host of opportunities that I haven’t had in a long time….[t]here are great opportunities from a Democratic perspective, to put certain things in the Constitution.” In the same article, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats of Sioux City said if Gronstal and Democrat House Speaker Pat Murphy are in charge of a constitutional convention, the entire constitution is opened up under their leadership and that the marriage amendment would never get addressed, but repeal of right-to-work would.
Unfortunately, Vander Plaats has taken the bait dished out by Gronstal’s fear mongering. Moreover, this position of deference to Gronstal demonstrates a lack of understanding of the constitutional convention process and who would control that process leading to an erroneous conclusion about the wisdom of calling a state constitutional convention.
Gronstal and his counterpart in the House, Democratic Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are not pushing for a constitutional convention. And why should they? Democratic constituencies, while largely unable to achieve their objectives through elected representatives, have been much more successful in reaching their goals through the unelected courts. The Varnum case invalidating Iowa’s traditional marriage statute and paving the way to same-sex marriage in Iowa is just the most recent iteration of this proposition. Similar examples can be found at the federal level, most notably the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion. In the recent past, the most significant liberal victories in the social policy realm have been achieved in the courts, not in Congress or the state legislatures.
What are the “great opportunities from a Democratic perspective, to put certain things in the Constitution” about which Gronstal speaks? A look at the history of state constitutional conventions indicates that the issues that receive the most traction in such conventions are issues such as marriage, tax limitations, spending controls, term limits, balance of power between branches of government (including judicial selection), direct citizen democracy and other issues fundamental to the structure of government. These issues are key Republican and conservative issues. The only Democrat issues which any conservative has any reason to fear are the very labor issues which union interests have unsuccessfully attempted to get through a Democrat controlled House and Senate for two successive legislative sessions. If these issues have not gained traction in a legislature controlled by the Democrats, why should conservatives have reason to fear that these issues will gain traction in a constitutional convention – or for that matter, be approved by the voters after a constitutional convention?
Gronstal is making a brilliant political move. By appearing to not care whether a constitutional convention is called and in subtly taunting the Republicans to push for such a convention, he is leading conservatives who rightly respect Gronstal’s political acumen to fear that he really wants a convention so that he can insert in the Iowa constitution those matters near and dear to liberal Democrat constituencies. Nothing could be further from the truth. These constituencies have things the way they want them now – able to achieve their objectives through the unelected courts when they cannot do so through the elected legislature. Nathan Tucker’s July 25, 2010, and September 5, 2010, articles in the Iowa Republican clearly show that the courts in Iowa are the realm of Democrat influence. Who could not believe this after Varnum?
Vander Plaats’ statement reflects a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Iowa Constitution’s provisions dealing with constitutional conventions. Article X, Section 3 of the Iowa Constitution provides that, upon an affirmative vote by the electorate of the call to convention, the general assembly only has the right to “provide by law for the election of delegates to such convention, and for submitting the results of said convention to the people.” State constitutional law scholars have clearly indicated that this provision gives legislative leaders no right to “control” the convention or even to impose rules for conducting the convention. In fact, there is clear precedent in other states that even if the legislature attempts to impose rules on the convention the convention itself is free to ignore those rules and provide for its own rules. By providing for an “election of delegates,” this provision also requires a separate election of delegates and does not empower to legislature to appoint those delegates. There is no assurance that Gronstal can even be elected as a delegate to the convention, much less “control” the convention.
Finally, it is the legislature that serves next January that deals with the process for electing delegates to the convention, not the current one. If Republicans should gain control of the Iowa House of Representatives, for example, not only will Gronstal be unable to “control” the convention, he will even be unable to “control” the delegate election process, since that process will have to be worked out between the Gronstal and the new leadership of the House.
Iowa voters should not fall into Gronstal’s trap and be led away from calling a constitutional convention, the most direct and effective means to recall the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum.
To learn more about calling the convention on the November 2 ballot, visit the Call the Convention website at www.calltheconvention.com
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