PDHblog This is a place for members of Progressive Democrats of Hawai‘i to express their thoughts, hopes and exasperations about political happenings.

October 14, 2008

Constitutional Convention

Filed under: HI Politics — rachel @ 2:51 pm

The Honolulu Advertiser has been running a useful series of articles about the Constitutional Convention (ConCon) question that will be on our ballot on Nov 4th. This is a very important question that many voters may be ignoring up to this point. The last time the question of whether to have a ConCon was on our ballot was 10 years ago. At that time, I was still a student and while I always tried to be an educated and informed voter I wasn’t as involved in politics as I am now. I remember reading the voter guides that showed up in my mailbox and still being somewhat confused as to how I should vote. I imagine that is the case with many voters today. Hopefully voters will tune into some of the information that is starting to circulate so that they can make an informed choice.

Read more for commentary and links to the recent articles…

Sunday’s article: Call for convention up to voters.

Explains why we get this choice in the first place and outlines some of the logistics involved in a ConCon. Outlines the general arguments given by proponents and opponents of a ConCon.

No single issue or set of issues is behind a convention this year, so the discussion has been mostly philosophical.

Many people who want a convention believe three decades is too long to go without a comprehensive review of the constitution and doubt the Democratic-controlled Legislature is capable of making structural changes that could shake the status quo.

Many who are opposed believe calling for a convention without specific issues leaves the constitution vulnerable to special interests and unnecessarily places existing rights at risk.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett said he believes delegates in 1950 would have been surprised the state would go more than 30 years without a review.

“To me, the issue now is, can we do better?” he said. “Can we do substantially better? And I think we can.”

It is easy to simply say “we can do better.” But can we? Will we? There is some really good stuff in our constitution as it stands.  Read for yourself at http://hawaii.gov/lrb/con. On the other side…

Lee and many who oppose a convention, however, ask why fundamental rights should be placed in jeopardy without identifying specific reasons to change the constitution. During a typical legislative session, it is unlikely for more than a few amendments to be actively considered. But during a convention, there would be the temptation to debate dozens.

Depending on when a convention is held, the amendments could be influenced by the political and social climates of the times or by the most well-financed special interests.

How would the right to collective bargaining fare during a recession? Would the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs be sacrificed for the ideal of equality? Would the right to privacy be questioned after a terrorist scare?

Monday’s article: Political forces are shaping the debate

Summarizes who the proponents and opponents of a ConCon are.

A tenuous, largely unorganized coalition of Republicans, disaffected Democrats and independents who have lost faith in the ability of the Democratic-controlled Legislature to change from within have been the most visible supporters of a convention.

Establishment Democrats, labor interests, environmentalists and Native Hawaiians who have greater influence at the Legislature have opposed a convention as unnecessary and a threat to existing rights.

The debate over a convention does not fall neatly down ideological or party lines, nor can it be explained simply as about change vs. the status quo.

Going to the websites for the organizations mentioned in the article and adding in others I know of, here is my list of who is for and against a ConCon. [I am sure I am missing some… feel free to add to the list by commenting.]

Against ConCon:

  • Hawai‘i Democratic Party
  • HSTA
  • George Ariyoshi
  • Sen Gary Hooser
  • NEA
  • UHPA
  • OHA

For ConCon:

  • Hawai‘i Republican Party
  • Gov Linda Lingle
  • Lt Gov “Duke” Aiona
  • Ed Case
  • Grassroot Institute
  • Cec Heftel
  • Gene Ward
  • Sam Slom

Today’s article: A look back at the 1978 convention

In essence, talk about a Constitutional Convention always divides those who are essentially comfortable with the status quo against those who want change and see no other way to achieve it.

That was certainly the case in 1978: That post-Watergate era ConCon was, above all else, a “people’s convention.” The ethic of the time virtually demanded that sitting political figures stay out of the way so “the people” could look at the constitution at their own pace and in their own way.

I think that framing the debate as status quo vs change is an over-simplification. There are a lot of things about local politics that I would love to see changed. I am not satisfied with the status quo, but I am also not confident that the current political climate would produce any changes that I would consider positive if a ConCon were held today. Would we really be able to produce a “people’s convention” now in the way that occurred in ’78? It is hard enough to get people out to vote, much less get good candidates for public office. Who would the delegates to a ConCon be? Who would they be backed by?

Here is the meat of what the ’78 convention resulted in:

In the end, the convention surprised itself by enacting 34 sweeping amendments to the constitution that still reverberate today. The unions retained their rights and power while initiative and referendum were turned down.

But in other areas, particularly in Hawaiian rights, environmental protections and constitutional guarantees of social or personal liberties, the 1978 Constitutional Convention produced nothing short of a revolution.

The convention created the groundbreaking and unprecedented state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, embedded protections for Hawaiian cultural practices in the constitution and even declared Hawaiian an official language of the state.

The exact role of OHA, who can or should participate in its activities, and how it should be funded remain in debate to this day.

On the environment, the 1978 delegates placed into the constitution strong new protections for the marine environment, for water (including the creation of a statewide water commission) and for agricultural land. The work of defining and then creating protections for prime agricultural land continues today, about 30 years after the voters approved the idea.

Along the way, delegates imposed a constitutional ban on the construction of a nuclear-fission power plant in Hawai’i without the express approval of a super-majority of two-thirds of each house of the Legislature.

Whatever the motivation, the convention declared the “right of the people to privacy,” which cannot be infringed without a legal showing of compelling state interest — a very high bar, indeed.

This right has been used on one hand to place a blanket over formerly open government records and on the other as a defense for such social rights as a woman’s right to choose and the right of same-sex couples to marry.

In an effort to impose a measure of citizen oversight over the spending habits of elected officials, the convention imposed a ceiling on state spending, and created a special revenue commission to guide lawmakers on how much they could spend and what they could do in times of surplus (give it back to the taxpayers).

That is some big stuff! In my mind, all good stuff too. It illustrates how much change can be made with a ConCon. I think the ’78 ConCon resulted in a very good constitution, which is in fact largely considered one of the most progressive of all state constitutions in the U.S. At a forum last night sponsored by Hawaiian Civic Clubs someone used this analogy, “If the weather was stormy you would not take your canoe out in the open ocean.” If the Hawai‘i State Constitution were opened up, the climate might not be conducive to progressive change.

Rep. Mina Morita said something else that stands in my mind at last night’s forum: “If you are mad and frustrated with the legislature, don’t take it out on our constitution.”


  1. I love it when the opponents of the convention say, “the current constitution isn’t broken. Where is it broken?” If that were a logical argument, then we’d all still be driving Model T’s. After all, the Model T wasn’t “broken” when newer more advanced models were introduced. I also disagree with the Con-Con placing fundamental rights in jeopardy. If that were a valid argument, then we should never have had any of the past seven Con-con’s as they were a danger to “fundamental rights.” Idiotic logic. At one time the fundamental right to vote was contingent on property ownership. The view of what’s a fundamental right changes with time and the evolution of society. The fact that Hawaii has made so many changes to its constitution versus the relatively few to the U.S. Constitution to me signifies that Hawaii has a hard time getting things right in the first place so periodic review is a good and necessary thing. If our constitution can’t stand up to scrutiny today then it’s a flawed document. To me the special interest Teachers’ Association paying for all these anti-convention ads is merely looking out for their own selfish interests because they are failing to perform up to well-established broadly recognized national standards. They’re failing to achieve the educational results that our children deserve and which ARE being achieved elsewhere. They’re failures who can’t stand up to sound criticism so they’re trying to nip it in the bud. They’re placing themselves above the needs of our children. How disingenuous is that?

    Comment by Manawai — October 15, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  2. First of all, I personally never said that the current constitution isn’t broken. I DO believe that at the last ConCon in ’78 a lot of really good stuff (from my perspective) was incorporated into that document.Some of that good stuff includes things that several people would like to see eliminated. For example: Office of Hawaiian Affairs; the strong right to privacy clause; native gathering rights; collective bargaining. I don’t think the constitution is perfect, but I think the changes needed are more of the “tweaking” level rather than wholesale change. That level of change can be done through amendments via the legislature. Yes, we are all frustrated with the legislature, but if enough of us do the work necessary to be heard, it can be done. I will repeat Mina Morita’s quote: “If you are angry with the Legislature, don’t take it out on our constitution.”

    Comment by rachel — October 16, 2008 @ 7:41 am

  3. My comment was not directed at you rachel but at HSTA President Roger Takabayashi and Anne F. Lee former president of the League of Women Voters of Hawai’i, both of whom asked publicly, “Is our Constitution broken?”

    Comment by Manawai — October 16, 2008 @ 10:41 am

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