A Modern Quasi-Convention of States

Note: This article was first posted at constitution.i2i.org on March 1, 2014.

Many opponents of an Article V convention seem to think that it would be a nearly unique event, for which the “only precedent” would be the 1787 constitutional convention.   Some even go so far as to oppose non-Article V gatherings among the states.

As regular readers know, the idea that a convention of states would be a nearly unique event is pure balderdash. Meetings among sovereign states (and before Independence, American colonies) on constitutional and other issues, have been a staple of American life for over 300 years. I’ve counted at least 35 [editor’s update: now 38 as of 3/13/17] of them since 1689—21 before Independence, ten in the first 11 years of Independence, and another four since the Constitution was ratified (1814, 1850, 1861, and 1922). [editor’s update: Additional conventions among colonies or states have since been identified as meeting in 1684, 1861, and 1889]. Several of these conventions proposed constitutional changes.

In addition, the states have often commissioned problem-solving task forces that look a lot like conventions even if they don’t comply with all the technical criteria. Here’s a modern example:

The Delaware River Basin Advisory Committee was a task force consisting of commissioners from four states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey) and two cities (New York and Philadelphia). In 1959 and 1960, it negotiated the Delaware River Basin Compact. The states arranged this compact largely to preempt federal efforts to control the waters of the Delaware River. Despite being upstaged, Congress ultimately approved the deal, as required by Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution.

One could argue that Delaware River Basin Advisory Committee fits all the criteria for “a convention of states.” Participation by the cities certainly didn’t  disqualify it as such: Representatives from other governmental units participating in multi-state conventions, while unusual, was not unprecedented. But because of its informality and the length of its existence (handling several tasks over several years), I’d prefer to call the Delaware River Basin Advisory Committee a “quasi-convention.”

Yet it certainly represents yet another event in the long history of conventions and convention-style meetings among states.

In other words, for an Article V convention, we have precedents by the bushel. For the legal and practical implications of this, see this prior posting.