Article V and the “Runaway Convention”

Article V requires Congress, “on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States,” to “call a Convention for proposing Amendments.” This process for proposing constitutional amendments has never been used, in large part because of fears that it would lead to a “runaway convention.” The exact definition of a runaway convention depends on whom you ask, but most often it refers to a convention that proposes an amendment beyond the scope of what the states contemplated when they applied for the convention in the first place. The term also raises the specter of a radical and unexpected constitutional change, such as a proposal to repeal the Bill of Rights or the like.

My article on the subject, Reopening the Constitutional Road to Reform: Toward a Safeguarded Article V Convention, 78 Tenn. L. Rev. 765 (Spring 2011) appears in the Tennessee Law Review’s symposium issue on Article V conventions. I evaluate the risks of a runaway convention in light of the constitutional text, structure and purpose of Article V and suggest that these risks are much smaller than often suggested. I also suggest additional safeguards that can be put in place to further minimize any risk of a runaway convention.

One safeguard of particular relevance to this blog would be for the House or Senate (or both) to adopt a rule that would prohibit submitting an out of scope amendment to the states for ratification. Before an amendment proposed by a convention may be ratified by the states, Congress must select the method of ratification (i.e., whether the amendment will be ratified by state legislatures or by state conventions). If the proposed amendment is constitutionally invalid, Congress need not (and indeed should not) submit it to the states for ratification.

By adopting a rule that an out-of-scope amendment will not be submitted to the states for ratification, the House and/or Senate could do a great deal to calm fears of a runaway convention and thereby empower the states to exercise their Article V powers as the Framers intended. Of course, Congress may be reluctant to take this step for the same reasons that the Framers provided for the Article V convention in the first place- Congress has no desire to facilitate adoption of the type of amendments that the states are likely to propose. The phrase “term limits” comes to mind.

This weekend there will be a conference at Harvard Law School to discuss the Article V convention process. I will be having a discussion/debate with Professor Mary Margaret Penrose regarding the runaway convention. Professor Penrose’s response to my article may be found here. My brief reply (imaginatively entitled “A Brief Reply to Professor Penrose”) can be found here.