The wisdom of America's Founding Fathers, not usually a hot legislative topic here, emerged as the focus of an intense little battle today in the General Assembly.
The issue is the U.S. Constitution, a document that has withstood nearly 200 years of tinkering by lawyers, judges and politicians. Today, however, Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs warned that the Constitution could be put in serious jeopardy because of a resolution passed by 31 state legislatures, including the 188-member assembly in Maryland.
Sachs is among those urging the legislature to repeal the resolution, passed here in 1975, that calls for a constitutional convention to propose an amendment to balance the federal budget. Such a convention (referred to here as a "con-con") could be called if the resolution is approved by 34 states, and three more, Hawaii, Montana and Vermont, are weighing passage this year.
"It's a high-stakes game," Sachs told a joint meeting of the Senate Constitutional and Public Law and House Judiciary committees, citing a host of legal scholars to support his case. "I didn't come here to testify about the merits of a federally balance budget. My concern is whether we want to play Russian roulette with a constitutional convention. It's very dangerous."
Sachs' view was echoed by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, religious organizations, the National Organization of Women, and Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) and Del. Anne S. Perkins (D-Baltimore), who have sponsored legislation to repeal the 1975 resolution. They say a convention could "run away," as it did in 1787, when delegates disposed of existing articles and rewrote the entire Constitution.
Opponents say that a constitutional convention could become a vehicle for amendments on controversial emotional issues such as abortion, nuclear freeze, sexual preference, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.
"A constitutional convention would be as great a crisis as the Civil War," said state Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery), testifying in favor of repeal.
The main obstacle to repeal appears to be political. Sen. James Clark (D-Howard), the chief backer of the original resolution, was toppled from the Senate presidency this year and humiliated by his colleagues last year when he launched a crusade on redistricting. Now some senators who have strong personal loyalties to Clark say they do not want to add to his miseries by repealing the resolution.
House leaders, meanwhile, say they do not want to press the issue until they are sure the measure can be approved by the whole legislature. "We can't afford to risk losing it," said one House leader. "That would just reinforce the resolution as it stands now."
Clark is a strong ally of the National Taxpayers' Union, which is the main lobby pushing the constitutional convention.
"Anyone who really believes that a constitutional convention would run away , does not believe in popular government," Jim Davidson, chairman of the Taxpayers' Union, testified today. "Not only is that person insulting the public, he is insulting the Maryland legislature and the legislatures of every other state. He is saying in effect that three-fourths of the legislatures stand ready to repeal the Bill of Rights. I say this is not only untrue, it is ridiculous."