It has been 37 years, almost to the month, since Congress sent a proposed constitutional amendment for women's rights to the states. Intense debate and advocacy followed, and on June 7, 1972, the Louisiana Senate ratified the amendment by a vote of 25-13. The House, however, did not follow suit. Across the nation, 35 states took the historic step to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, but that was three states shy of what's needed to amend the U.S. Constitution.
The ERA was scheduled to become the 27th amendment to the Constitution. Instead, No. 27 was assigned in 1992 to what is still the newest amendment, which restrains Congress from setting its own salary. Interestingly, that notion was originally proffered in 1789, more than 202 years before it was ratified. ERA supporters are hoping their drive won't take as long. Their renewed efforts could bring forth a 28th amendment that bars gender-based inequalities.
In Louisiana, Democratic state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey of Baton Rouge and Rep. Rosalind Jones of Monroe plan to file the appropriate resolutions during the session that convenes April 27. While a spirited debate should ensue, the two legislators face more substantial hurdles on the legal side. The 1972 proposed amendment was set to expire in 1979, but was renewed and signed by then-president Jimmy Carter, even though Congress didn't pass it by the required two-thirds vote.
Anne K. Taylor of Baton Rouge, state president of the American Association of University Women, says the proposal has been filed in practically every Congress since 1982 and Louisiana's ratification could piggyback on those efforts. Though the Supreme Court essentially declared the original 1972 measure dead, it has yet to weigh in on the extension and 1982 version. More importantly, Taylor adds, it's time for Louisiana to take a stand. "This is very important for the country and Louisiana," she says. "We need to say right up front in the U.S. Constitution that we think everyone should be treated equally under the law."
If debates in other states are any indication of what to expect, look for heated conversations about everything from abortion to lesbian marriage. Taylor says these topics are among the most controversial arguments raised during discussions of the ERA — but she counters that they aren't relevant. Critics also contend the proposed amendment would impact the armed forces, alter the way Social Security benefits are doled out to widows and possibly change the way divorce laws are interpreted.
As for the Louisiana Constitution, it already states "no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws." On other fronts, there are big plans for amending the state constitution as well, which shouldn't come as a surprise.
No other state has changed its constitution more than Louisiana. Since the 1974 document was adopted, voters have approved 221 amendments to its original 35,000 words. If some lawmakers have their way, more changes could be in store. State Rep. Franklin Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican, has joined other freshman lawmakers in calling for a commission to study the feasibility of calling a constitutional convention.
As proposed, the study commission would have 11 members — two members each from the state Senate, state House and Louisiana Supreme Court; and five members appointed by the governor, including one representative each from the Public Affairs Research Council, Louisiana State Law Institute, LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center and Southern University Law Center. If the resolution is adopted during the regular session, the commission could meet as early as this summer. It would have to complete its study and make recommendations by Jan. 15, 2010.
Foil says recent constitutional amendments have unintentionally tied the hands of lawmakers trying to balance the budget and push for budgetary reforms. Some of the changes are seen as steps backward. "In 1974, the people of our state approved a new constitution that made significant and needed changes," Foil says. "The new constitution reorganized our executive branch of government and made significant changes in local government. It also reduced the document from 255,000 words to a mere 35,000 words."
Nowadays, however, so many programs and services are protected by the constitution that many believe a constitutional convention is the only long-term fix. A convention also would provide an opportunity to tackle other pressing issues, such as the state's tax structure. "The legislative call for such broad constitutional change is the absolute key to any remaining chance for reform in Louisiana," says Shreveport demographer and political analyst Elliot Stonecipher.
Not all are convinced. C.B. Forgotston, a Hammond attorney and senior staff member of the 1973 constitutional convention, says the idea of a constitutional convention to solve the current budget dilemma is the "equivalent of using a 20-pound sledge hammer to drive a thumbtack into a corkboard."
He says if lawmakers truly want to wipe budgetary dedications from the constitution, they can simply introduce a constitutional amendment and let the voters decide. "The constitution is a nice scapegoat and a constitutional convention is a convenient cop-out," Forgotston says. "However, almost all of the current dedications can be removed by one single amendment to the constitution proposed by the Legislature and ratified by the voters."
Even if lawmakers call a constitutional convention and remove all of the current protections, Forgotston predicts that future lawmakers would add them back in over time to appease special interests. "The problem is not the constitution," Forgotston says. "The problem is the Legislature, which lacks the courage to do the right thing."
Whether lawmakers buy into a constitutional convention remains an open question, but there there's little doubt that a final draft of Louisiana's current charter is far from written.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.