To convene or not to convene

Our view: Why hold a constitutional convention when there's no need for one?

July 10, 2010

It is one of the peculiarities of Maryland that its state constitution requires the General Assembly to place a binding referendum on the general election ballot every 20 years, asking voters whether they want to convene a constitutional convention. Since the last time the matter was considered was in 1990, that is one of the questions voters will be asked to decide again in November.

No doubt this will come as a surprise to most people, who probably are more familiar with the U.S. Constitution than with their state's founding charter. At some 47,000 words, the Maryland Constitution and its 200 amendments make for a famously long-winded document nearly eight times the length of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights combined.

To make matters worse, it's full of pronouncements on obscure or trivial topics, such as Baltimore's power to govern off-street parking or the state's authority to license slot machines, that in most states would have no business being in a constitution at all.

In fact, the only time in the state constitution's 143-year history that a convention was actually held was in 1966, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Maryland's system of legislative districting on the grounds that it violated the one-man, one vote rule. Delegates to a state constitutional convention were duly elected and convened the following year, but their proposals failed at the ballot box in 1968, and voters haven't opted for another one since.

This year should be no different. There's no pressing issue on the horizon that demands a constitutional rewrite, and there's always the danger that once delegates got to tinkering with the current document, they might end up doing more harm than good. Voters seem to understand this instinctively: The vast majority of them have ignored the question completely in recent decades.

Leaving well enough alone is not always the best way to deal with important issues of state governance, but in this case it may be good enough.

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