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Editorial columns

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Constitutional convention risky, unnecessary

Tyler Watts’ opinion piece in the June 19 Journal Gazette (“Amendment plan best to remedy fiscal mess”) offers soothing assurances that if the states call for a new constitutional convention, people do not need to worry about fanatics re-writing the entire document and depriving us of our liberties. No, he says such a convention would be a “convention for proposing amendments” and “would almost certainly be limited to the drafting and proposal of a single amendment – such as that federal balanced-budget amendment … mentioned earlier.”

Professor Watts’ understanding is not shared by constitutional scholars, by professors teaching the law at our state’s law schools or by history.

The framers of our Constitution had been called into a grand convention in Philadelphia in May of 1787. We forget that they were called to the convention not to write a new constitution. At that time, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, and the several states had recognized that there were major deficiencies in this arrangement.

Accordingly, the states’ representatives to this convention in Philadelphia were authorized only to offer amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Using that power, they rewrote the entire document – our Constitution.

So when the framers of our Constitution were meeting in Philadelphia and drafting our Constitution, they knew exactly what they were saying when they authorized the states to “call a Convention for proposing Amendments.” Our existing Constitution was proposed as an amendment to the Articles of Confederation. Of course the Founding Fathers understood that such a convention could rip up the entire Constitution and start over again.

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson thought that our Constitution should be completely rewritten every 19 or 20 years. Each generation would thus reform our nation.

But then something happened that fully changed this perspective: The adoption of the Bill of Rights. The Constitution of 1787 is essentially a structural document, dividing powers among the branches of government. Our Founding Fathers overlooked the fact that the people wanted to be protected in their liberties.

And thus the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights) were quickly adopted and ratified. These amendments protect freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and many other basic liberties we all enjoy. And our Constitution assures the existence of a strong, independent judiciary that will enforce these protections.

Because our Constitution now contains protections for our fundamental freedoms, we should not offer it up for repeal. All of this – freedoms and all – are eligible for curtailment or elimination, if a full constitutional convention is called for.

It is a disaster waiting to happen. The additional liberties and freedoms brought about by the Civil War amendments to our Constitution can be erased. There is no requirement that any of our constitutional protections, including the 19th Amendment (assuring women the right to vote), would have to survive this convention.

Let’s stop this nonsense. Our Constitution has stood the test of time and should be amended only for compelling reasons. The current problems have been brought about by our elected representatives and senators. If they aren’t doing their jobs, get rid of them. That’s what elections are for.

Grant F. Shipley is a Fort Wayne attorney. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.