California Constitutional Conventions

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Handwritten parchment copy of the 1849 constitution

The California Constitutional Conventions were two separate constitutional conventions that took place in California during the nineteenth century which led to the creation of the modern Constitution of California. The first, known as the Monterey Convention, held in September and October 1849 in advance of California attaining U.S. statehood the following year, adopted the state's original constitution.[1] This document maintains jurisdiction along with the current constitution[2] which was ratified on May 7, 1879, following the Sacramento Convention.[3] Article 3 Section 2 of the current Constitution references the original boundaries[4] as stated in the 1849 Constitution at Article 7.[5] The result of Progressive mistrust of elected officials, this later constitution took a full year to finalize (March 1878 to March 1879)[6] and is today the third longest in the world (behind the constitutions of Alabama and of India),[7] and has been described as "the perfect example of what a constitution ought not to be".[8] Multiple calls for a third state constitutional convention have been raised during the past quarter-century, but none has thus far gained widespread political momentum.

Monterey Convention of 1849[edit]

Colton Hall in Monterey, site of the 1849 Constitutional Convention

The Monterey Convention of 1849 was the first California Constitutional Convention to take place.[1][9][10] Bvt. Brig. Gen. Bennett C. Riley, ex officio Governor of California, issued a proclamation on 3 June 1849 calling for a convention and a special election on August 1 where delegates to the convention would be elected.[1]

The memorial presenting the proposed constitution to Congress claimed it banned slavery not because of anti-slavery sentiment, but just unanimous agreement (including convention delegates originally from slave states) that California's climate and soil were not suitable for slave labor. It also described the proposed eastern boundary as a compromise between those who wished to include all of former Mexican Alta California (including today's Nevada, Utah, and Arizona) and a committee-proposed eastern boundary at 116° (including the western half of Nevada but excluding the Lower Colorado River Valley and Imperial Valley), and denied having considered north-south division at the Missouri Compromise Line (south of Carmel and Fresno), saying Southern Californians had no interest in division.[1]:xix

Sacramento Convention of 1878–79[edit]

The Sacramento Convention of 1878–79 amended and ratified the original 1849 constitution.[11][12] It took place in Sacramento, California from March 1878 to March 1879. The new California Constitution produced by the Convention was voted for on May 7, 1879, and adopted by a vote of 77,959 to 67,134.[13]

Third constitutional convention proposals[edit]

California's third constitutional convention was originally proposed in a newspaper editorial article in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 21, 2008, by Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the politically powerful Bay Area Council, an association of the largest business enterprises in the San Francisco Bay Area.[2] Mr. Wunderman was visiting the California legislature at a time when the state government was in the midst of a record 80-day-long budget stalemate, due to a projected $26 billion budget deficit.[3] Among the consequences of the budget deficit, the state enacted unprecedented fee increases[4] at its colleges and universities and sustained prison riots[5] due to overcrowding. In an email sent to the author of this article (the contents of which have been authorized for publication by Mr. Wunderman), Mr. Wunderman stated: "[t]hen Assembly member Mark DeSaulnier stated he had received an offhand comment from the Senate pro Tem Don Perata in the elevator [regarding the need to call a constitutional convention]. It was more an expression of frustration attributed to Perata than an actual suggestion, I believe. But we heard it."

The organized effort to call a constitutional convention in California began with a series of "summits," the first of which was held in Sacramento on February 24, 2009, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel.[6] The principal proponents of the Sacramento summit were the Bay Area Council, the California League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the William C. Velasquez Institute, the Center for Governmental Studies, the Greenlining Institute, the Courage Campaign, the Planning and Conservation League, and the Silicon Valley Network.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17] Large attendance by a broad base of highly placed political actors and general enthusiasm for the proposal led the proponents of the Sacramento Summit on May 20, 2009, to launch the website as the vehicle by which they would organize their movement for a California constitutional convention.[18]

Californians have held constitutional conventions twice in the past. The first 1849 and the second, in 1878-1879, gave birth to the constitution that still governs California.[14][15]

The hope of those who supported a constitutional convention is that it could "take on the manifold structural problems in California's budget process at a single stroke.[16]

2010 ballot propositions abandoned[edit]

Letters requesting ballot titles for two potential California 2010 ballot propositions were filed with the California Attorney General in June 2009. Revised language was submitted in October 2009.[17]

  • California Electors Right to Call for Constitutional Convention Act (2010)
  • California Call for a Limited Constitutional Convention (2010)

However, in February 2010, it was announced that petition drives to qualify the measures for the November 2, 2010 ballot were being abandoned due to insufficient financial support.[18]

Reasons for a convention[edit]

Those who support a convention argue that "California is broken" and that piecemeal changes through legislation or ballot initiatives would be unable to solve a system they contend has become "ungovernable".[19]

Problems they point to include:

  • It has the worst bond rating of the 50 states.
  • In 2009, income-tax receipts are coming in far below expectations.
  • If the California 2009 ballot propositions May 19 ballot propositions had passed, the state would still have faced a $15.4 billion budget deficit. The amount of deficit expected if they failed, as they did, was $15.4 billion.

Issues in California that supporters of a convention believe require a more systematic or "holistic" approach (such as by a far-reaching revision of the state's constitution) include:

  • Any budget must pass both houses of the California State Legislature with a California End the Two-Thirds Requirement Amendment
  • A minority of Californians vote. Those who do are "older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population".
  • Voters in California tend to self-sort into regions that lean heavily one way or the other on the political spectrum, leading to the election of California state senators and state representatives who are not very moderate.
  • California's system of ballot propositions is part of the problem, with California as "the only state that does not allow its legislature to override successful initiatives" through what is known as legislative tampering and with no sunset clauses on propositions.[19]

Polling information[edit]

A Field Poll released in mid-October 2009 indicated that:

  • 49% of voters favor changing the state constitution through a deliberative process with proposals submitted to voters as a package, while 40% would prefer separate initiatives placed on the ballot one at a time.[20]
  • 63% said that delegates to a constitutional convention should include a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds.[20]

Constitutional Revision Commission, 1996[edit]

A Constitutional Revision Commission met in the mid-1990s and made a series of recommendations about a wholesale revision of the state's constitution, but this process resulted in no changes.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d Report of the Debates in the Convention of California on the Formation of the State Constitution in September and October, 1849. United States Congress. 1850.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Grodin 8, 16.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-02-02. Retrieved 2014-01-23.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-01-28. Retrieved 2014-01-23.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ 1878–1879 Constitutional Convention Working Papers Archived 2010-01-28 at the Wayback Machine, California State Archives
  7. ^ Janiskee, Brian; Ken Masugi (2007-07-27). "2". Democracy in California: Politics and Government in the Golden State (2 ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 27. ISBN 0-7425-4836-8.
  8. ^ Wilson and Ebbert via Korey 11. Korey states, "The convention did succeed in producing what one writer has called 'a document that was the perfect example of what a constitution ought not to be.'" The work cited is Wilson and Ebbert, California's Legislature.
  9. ^ Biographical sketches of the delegates to the convention to frame a new constitution for the State of California, 1878 : together with a succinct review of the facts leading to the formation of the Monterey Convention of 1849, a list of its members, and the Constitutional Act of 1878
  10. ^ A Humorous Account of America's Past: 986 to 1898
  11. ^ Los Angeles Herald - 1879
  12. ^ Rose Institute - Original Intent of California's Blaine Provision
  13. ^ Sargent, Noel. The California Constitutional Convention of 1878-9. California Law Review, volume 6, number 1, Nov. 1917. Available online at JSTOR
  14. ^ IndyBay, "Does California Need a Constitutional Convention?", August 1, 2009
  15. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Ready for the devil we don't know", August 16, 2009
  16. ^ "Los Angeles Times, "Fixing California: A constitutional convention -- solution or threat?", June 5, 2009
  17. ^ Government Reform Coalition Submits Measures to Call California Constitutional Convention, October 28, 2009
  18. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Constitutional convention? Not likely", February 21, 2010
  19. ^ a b The Economist", "The ungovernable state", May 14, 2009
  20. ^ a b San Francisco Business Times, "Voters support changing California's constitution", October 14, 2009
  21. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Fixing California: A constitutional convention -- solution or threat?", June 5, 2009

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]