The Constitutionality of a Limited Convention: An Originalist Analysis
Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 81, p. 53, 2012
57 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2012 Last revised: 8 May 2012
Date Written: April 6, 2012
This article revisits the classic question of whether the Constitution allows limited conventions. The Constitution provides two methods for proposing constitutional amendments: the congressional proposal method and the convention method. Under the convention method, when two thirds of the state legislatures apply for a convention, the Congress is required to call for a “Convention for proposing Amendments.” An issue much debated over the years has been whether the state legislatures can apply for a limited convention – either a convention limited to proposing an amendment on a specific subject or, even more restrictively, a convention limited to deciding whether to propose a specifically worded amendment. A long line of leading constitutional scholars, such as Bruce Ackerman, Alexander Bickel, Charles Black, Walter Dellinger, Gerald Gunther, and Michael Paulsen, have argued that the Constitution does not authorize limited conventions.
In this article, I argue that the Constitution’s original meaning allows for both types of limited conventions. In making this argument, I supply the first rigorous account of how the original meaning of the constitutional text permits such limited conventions. In particular, I show, based on evidence from contemporary dictionaries, from other parts of the Constitution, from conventions existing at the time, and from other evidence of word usage, that the original meaning of the Constitution’s phrase a “Convention for proposing Amendments” includes both limited and unlimited conventions. I also show that the Constitution’s authorization of state legislatures to apply for a “Convention for proposing Amendments” allows them to apply for limited conventions. Finally, the article critiques the leading theories arguing for the contrary view, focusing on the work of Charles Black and Walter Dellinger.
Keywords: constitutional convention, constitutional amendment, originalism
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