With the end of the most recent legislative session, many North Carolina voters are looking ahead to 2014. The General Assembly will reconvene in May for the short session, but the buildup to the elections in November of next year has already begun. Elections will be held for the United States House of Representatives and one of North Carolina’s two Senate seats, as well as elections for both houses of the N.C. General Assembly. New political officials, however, will not be the only decision voters will make; as at least one constitutional amendment will be voted on by the people of North Carolina. Though this amendment, involving the waiver of a jury trial by a criminal defendant, may not be as contentious as 2012’s Amendment One (pdf), it will have an impact if adopted.
Out of 143 proposed amendments to North Carolina’s Constitution, 107 have been adopted since 1776.
North Carolina has a long and diverse history of amendments to its Constitution. Since 1776, there have been 143 constitutional amendments proposed [Note: a list of amendments before 1996 can be found here, and a more recent list of amendments can be found here (pdf)]. Of those, 107 have been adopted. An explanation for the success of these amendments can be found when examining the protocol for amending the Constitution. Article XIII of the North Carolina Constitution (pdf) provides two methods for amending the state constitution.
Sections Three and Four of Article XIII describe the two procedures by which the Constitution can be amended. The first is by a convention of the people. The protocol for calling such a convention is located in Section 1 of the Article and requires that two-thirds of both houses of the General Assembly call for a convention. If the General Assembly calls for a convention, a majority of voters would have to agree on the proposed amendment. Once the convention is gathered, the delegates can either propose a new or revised Constitution or propose amendments to the current one. If the convention adopts a proposal, the citizens of the state then vote on it. If a majority votes in favor of the convention’s proposal, it is adopted and will be added to the Constitution.
The second method is for the General Assembly to propose amendments to the Constitution. Three-fifths of both houses of the General Assembly must vote in favor of the proposed amendment. If that occurs, it is then placed on the ballot. If the voters then adopt the resolution, it would become an official amendment to the Constitution. Neither procedure for amending the Constitution calls for the Governor’s approval at any time in the process, unlike the usual procedure for a majority of Public Bills, which are passed by the legislature and subsequently submitted to the Governor to be signed into law.
The more efficient the two amendment methods is legislative action: it requires only sixty percent of each house of the General Assembly and then a majority of the voters’ support for the amendment to be adopted. When one party controls both houses of the Legislature, as is currently the case, it is not overly difficult to place amendments to the Constitution on the ballot if the party in power is in agreement.
Only one amendment may be on the ballot currently, but two others are likely to follow as the 2014 election approaches.
At the end of the General Assembly’s 2013 long session, one proposed amendment (pdf) is already set to be on the 2014 ballot. The amendment would allow a criminal defendant to waive his right to a jury trial in cases where the prosecution is not seeking the death penalty. The judge would then have to consent to the waiver before proceedings continued.
Federal law already allows criminal defendants to waive their right to a jury trial with similar preconditions, and a number of other states do, as well. The proposed amendment would alter Article I, Section 24 of the North Carolina Constitution, which ensures the right of a trial by jury to criminal defendants. Ordinarily, proposed amendments to the Constitution passed by both houses do not need to be signed by the Governor. Governor McCrory, however, signed this proposed amendment because it also included a change to a General Statute to reflect the ability of defendants to waive the right to a trial by jury. If the voting outcomes in both houses are any indication, the amendment should pass with ease. The proposal passed the Senate unanimously, and only one House member voted against it.
One proposed amendment involves the way North Carolina elects its executive leaders, and one addresses the state’s eminent domain law.
Two other amendments are also likely to be found on the 2014 ballot. One involves the way North Carolina elects its executive leaders, and one addresses the state’s eminent domain law. The proposed gubernatorial elections amendment (pdf) would require the governor and lieutenant governor run as one ticket, instead of running separately. The amendment’s purpose is to keep the governor and lieutenant governor as members of the same party so that a conflict would not arise if the lieutenant governor were needed to fill the governorship. Early in July, the House agreed to study (pdf) the effects of having the governor and lieutenant governor run on one ticket before taking further action, and the amendment should again be considered in next year’s short session of the General Assembly.
The second proposal that may make the ballot involves eminent domain. For a condemnation to be legal under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the taking of private property must be for a public use and just compensation must be paid. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court, in Kelo v. City of New London, held that private parties could condemn land under the law of eminent domain so long as the development would benefit the community generally, thus qualifying it as a public use. The Court’s ruling in Kelo expanded the uses for eminent domain, and the proposed amendment (pdf) to the State Constitution would limit the Court’s ruling in North Carolina.
The amendment proposes that private property may be taken only when it is for a “public use.” The accompanying legislation in the General Statutes would take North Carolina back to the pre-Kelo understanding of eminent domain, changing the language in the statutes from “public use or benefit” to just “public use.” This would limit, in the eyes of legislators, the ability of private entities to take land under eminent domain if it would provide only general benefit to the community. Both houses have voted for the bill, but it has been re-referred to the Judiciary I Senate Standing Committee. Action will presumably be taken on the proposed amendment in May of 2014 when the General Assembly reconvenes.
At least one amendment to be voted on, but more may be added.
The amendment process is not an area of politics that receives heavy media coverage. Though one could argue an adopted amendment to the State Constitution would have a much greater impact than any one politician or other story receiving attention, the media largely focused its attention in recent months on other areas of North Carolina politics—likely due to the acrimony surrounding this session of the General Assembly. It will be worth watching, however, when the legislature reconvenes in May to see whether either of the proposed bills makes it out of committee and more than the one new amendment is placed on the ballot for voters in November 2014.