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West Virginia Senate Debates Article V Convention Of States, Focuses On Unknowns

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Will Price
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West Virginia Legislative Photography
Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, speaks on the floor on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

Would a gathering of delegates from each of the fifty states, tasked with amending the United States Constitution, be focused on a singular topic? Or would such a convention turn into a free-for-all — leaving the country’s supreme legal document susceptible to reckless changes?

Those questions and other constitutional ambiguities were part of an impassioned debate Wednesday in the West Virginia Senate. Lawmakers discussed an Article V convention of states as one option for putting term limits on Congress. 

Senate Concurrent Resolution 4 calls for an Article V convention of states to amend the United States Constitution and enact congressional term limits. The proposal, sponsored by 15 Republicans, was adopted by the upper chamber on a 20-10 vote

Four members of the minority — Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier; Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan; Sen. Glen Jeffries, D-Kanawha, and Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell — joined Republicans in calling for the convention of states. 

Article V of the United States Constitution outlines the process by which the country’s legal framework can be amended. 

One option is for two-thirds of both houses of Congress to agree to an amendment. That amendment could be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures or three-fourths of states at a convention.  

Article V also allows for a convention of states to gather, but would require two-thirds of states (34 of 50) to agree to the amendment. The same ratification process — three-fourths of state legislatures or three-fourths of states at a convention (38 of 50) — applies to this route. 

Such a convention and subsequent amendments have never been adopted in the history of the United States. Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, acknowledged there are many unknowns for an Article V convention of states, but said West Virginia should be open to the conversation.

He noted other ways states have attempted to impose term limits that have been downed by the nation’s high court.

“Some states tried to, by legislative act, establish term limits for their respective senators and representatives in the United States Congress — and there were cases the United States Supreme Court decided which held that, under the language of the existing Constitution, a state may not act unilaterally to do that,” Trump explained. “And it would require an amendment to the United States Constitution.”

So far, three states — Florida, Alabama and Missouri — have adopted resolutions calling for a Article V convention of states that specifically address congressional term limits. However, 13 other states have adopted resolutions that address proposed amendments on multiple topics that include that issue. 

“This makes us very close to having an Article V convention,” Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said, referring to the growing number of resolutions that have been adopted. 

“Who knows what provisions of our Constitution will be put at risk? And when it comes out, don't you think that there will be millions of dollars to try to persuade our states one way or another on any particular issue? It also may be one extremely popular issue cobbled together with a bunch of other changes to our Constitution,” Romano added.

Contacted by email Wednesday, West Virginia University constitutional law professor John Taylor agreed that should an Article V convention of states be called, there are few guidelines. However, he does believe that the ratification process could prevent a convention from spiraling out to address endless amendments.

“There is no hard law on this, but commentators have considered the question and reached different conclusions.  Fears of a ‘runaway convention’ – a convention that would not observe the limits on the topics to be considered like those in SCR 4 — make many observers nervous,” Taylor explained. “Others argue that the only way to make needed changes to the Constitution is to bypass Congress via an Article V convention and that the requirement of ratification by 38 states is sufficient protection against any deeply misguided amendments.”

While Senate Democrats cautioned against taking that chance, Republicans continued to say it would be worth the risk.

“I think Article V is a great thing. It's a check on tyranny. It's basically saying ‘look, we have no other recourse here.’ You look at what's happening in Virginia right now. One of the most beautiful displays of our republic — of organic democracy — happened in Virginia,” Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, said, referring to Second Amendment rallies that took place. “[An Article V convention of states] is an avenue, a tool that the founders gave us because they were students of history and they know how easily tyrants rise, authoritarian governments rise. And that's what this is for.”

Few arguments were made Wednesday that specifically addressed term limits — other than those that came from Senate Concurrent Resolution 4’s lead sponsor, Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker.

“I'm fed up. And, if anybody in here is not fed up with what's going on, shame on you. This is a last resort to fix a problem that Congress will not,” Smith said. 

Senate Concurrent Resolution 4 now heads to the House of Delegates, where it would need a simple majority to be adopted. 

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