Ballot question will decide fate of constitution

October 28, 1990|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- It is the sort of election year sleeper that could turn state government topsy-turvy -- Question 3 asking voters if they want to reopen and possibly rewrite the basic document of state government, the Maryland Constitution.

Foes on the emotional abortion issue could pry open the constitution to prohibit abortions, or to insert guarantees of abortion rights.

Angry taxpayers could try to put tax limits in the constitution, or assure Maryland voters a right they now lack to petition tax or other issues onto election year ballots.

Or, voters who simply are fed up with government could seize the opportunity to enact limits on legislative terms in office, or otherwise change the basic rights and authorities granted by the constitution.

But none of that appears likely to happen, primarily because hardly anyone seems aware the question is going to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. And even if they knew, it is almost impossible to get the number of votes needed to pass such a measure.

That's because the constitution says a convention must be called only if a majority of those voting in the entire election -- not just on that one issue -- favors such a convention. "There don't seem to be any elected officials, or people running for office, who are interested in it," said Dr. H. Harry Basehart, a political science professor at Salisbury State University. "So the electorate isbasically ignorant of the fact it is going to be on the ballot."

The yes-or-no vote on the constitutional convention issue is one of three questions voters will be asked to decide in this fall's election. The other two are proposed constitutional amendments that would:

* Transfer budgetary responsibility for the state's 24 Circuit Court clerks' offices from the executive branch of government to the judicial branch.

* Clarify that judges, legislators and other state and local officials may serve in the military reserves or Maryland National Guard without violating constitutional provisions that prohibit such officials from holding more than one office.

The constitutional convention question is on the ballot because the state constitution says the "sense of the voters" must be taken every 20 years as to whether to rewrite the constitution.

But even if a majority votes for a convention, that almost certainly will not be enough to meet the constitutional requirement of a majority of those voting in the election. Because thousands of citizens who vote for political candidates traditionally ignore ballot questions, the requirement is almost impossible to meet.

"It means it is highly unlikely, whatever the vote is, that there will be a call for a constitutional convention," predicted Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who serves as counsel to the General Assembly.

The state's last constitutional convention was held in 1967. It produced what would have become the state's fifth constitution since 1776, but the proposal came under attack from local courthouse officials whose agencies would have lost their constitutional status under the new document and was rejected.

Despite the defeat, many of the 1967 ideas -- such as restructuring the state court system, removing obsolete language or biased references to religion or race, setting the voting age at 18, and creating the office of lieutenant governor -- were added to the constitution by amendments.

As a result, some argue there is no pressing need for a rewrite of the constitution now, and say they fear what could happen if special interest groups took control of such a convention.

Courthouse politics could still play a role in what happens to the second question on this year's ballot, the one placing Circuit Court clerks' offices under the control of the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court.

The proposal would protect the clerks' budgets from cuts imposed by the governor because the judiciary's budget is submitted to the legislature separately from the executive's. But it also would take away some of the power individual clerks have over hiring and firing of courthouse employees.

"I can't support this," said Bettie Ann Skelton, who 13 months ago became Montgomery County's court clerk. "We're just giving away everything. We're going to lose more than we're going to gain."

But Ms. Skelton appears to be in the minority. The statewide association of court clerks, backed by 19 clerks, supports the change, as do legislators aware of financial and other inequities among various clerks' offices.

Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals, who would take over the clerks' $45 million in budgets and become their new boss, also backs it, saying it would bring a needed uniformity and stability to the clerks' offices. He said the shift also may be a forerunner of a more sweeping change in which the elective office of court clerk may one day be converted to an appointive position.

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