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A Constitutional Convention for Rhode Island? The Pros and Cons of Democracy and Rights


Steven Brown of the RI Chapter of the ACLU: “The votes that voters get to choose across the country are on some of the most divisive, controversial, social, ideological issues there are; abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage, anti-immigrant. We are deluding ourselves if we think we can hold a convention and not have those issues come to the fore….What’s troubling about that is that we are talking about individual rights that should not be subject to majoritarian control. You’ll hear about all of the safeguards that are in place; first you have to elect the delegates, and then the convention has to vote to approve an amendment, then it’s up to the voters to approve or reject it….They aren’t safeguards, when you’re talking about minority rights”.

Professor Jared Goldstein: “On a basic level, the concern that we’ll have a runaway convention, or that they’ll pass recommendations that are contrary to our fundamental rights is really a point of view that expresses simple, profound distrust of the people, that is, we can’t trust the people the enact legislation that will help us because they may take away our constitutional rights….Don’t we want the people to decide these fundamental questions about what our society is like?…If the answer is no, then who do we trust? Do we just want the judges to decide what our rights are? What are they basing them on?”

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A Constitutional Convention for Rhode Island? The History and Legal Framework


John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island: “The question [of whether to have a convention] has come before the voters three times since the 1974 changes to the constitution. In 1984 it passed, it got 53.8% of the votes. In 1994 it was defeated, and only received 40.5% of the votes. And in 2004, the most recent time it was on the ballot, it received 48% of the votes.

What are its chances this time?…The only thing we have to go on is a January 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling, where they did, I believe, a sample of roughly 500 Rhode Islanders, and it came up with 40% of Rhode Islanders supporting, 25% opposing, and 35% undecided.”

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A Constitutional Convention for Rhode Island? How the State Constitution is Not Just a Mini-Federal Constitution


Professor Robert Williams: “Some people think that the state constitutions are too easy to change, and therefore aren’t really constitutional. Some people think that state constitutions are too long, they’re too detailed….What these people are doing are comparing state constitutions to the model that all of us know, which is the United States Constitution. I want to suggest that that’s a big mistake, and as you go forward and try to determine whether to have a convention to look at your state constitution, and if you do have a convention, look at what functions and qualities a state constitution has in contrast to the US Constitution….They’re different from the United States Constitution and they ought to be different”.

Professor Alan Tarr: “Most of us revere the US Constitution….Most of us feel we couldn’t do a very good job improving on [the Founders’] handiwork. But somehow, we don’t feel the same reverence, the same attachment to our state constitutions….What we really have are two different constitutional traditions. At the national level, we value stability and continuity. At the state level, we value change and experimentation. The reflects a conflict of views, if you will, at the very point of the founding”.

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