Reflections on the 1965 Constitutional Convention

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By Lawrence J. DeNardis (c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2014

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Beginning with the Fundamental Orders of 1639, Connecticut never lost or surrendered her charter of liberties. A state constitutional revision in 1818 made some substantive changes, but the same basic principles of self-government guided Connecticut from 1639 to 1965.

Then, in the turbulent 1960s, the Supreme Court opened the door to change. From the beginning of the new nation the Court was hesitant to take up issues relating to the structure and mission of state governments, respecting the constitutional principle of federalism. But then during a decade which brought great change, numerous allegations from state voters claiming their voting rights were being diluted, particularly following state reapportionment, led the court to change its views and hold that such allegations may be reviewed as federally justiciable matters (Baker v. Carr 1962). What remained was the identification of the constitutional principle at stake. By 1964, the court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment requires every state to structure its legislatures such that all the members of each house represent substantially the same number of people (Reynolds v. Sims 1964).

Since colonial times, creating legislative districts of strict equal population had not been a basic precept. In fact, Connecticut’s House of Representatives had historically been based on another concept—the equal representation of towns—a principle adopted by the framers of the U.S. Constitution in structuring the U.S. Senate. However, for the U.S. House of Representatives and those states that had districts based on population in one or both of their chambers, drawing and re-drawing district lines (after each federal census) proved difficult and contentious, often leading to shameful compromises or, worse, inaction. For example, the Connecticut State Senate, required by law to be based on equal districts, had not substantially changed its districts since 1901, with the result that by 1960 senate districts with 31 percent of the state’s population controlled the majority of that body. In the same year, the state house of representatives, based on “town” representation, could elect a majority with only 12 percent of the people—the most egregious malapportionment in the nation.

After the Baker and Reynolds decisions, a parade of state-by-state cases appeared before federal courts, and each state failed the new federal test of “one man one vote” (as it was referred to then), a test based on a new interpretation of the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment. The Connecticut case, Butterworth v. Dempsey (1964), brought by the League of Women Voters, would bring significant political change to the “Land of Steady Habits.” Under federal court order and state implementation, the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention convened on July 1, 1965 at the historic Old State House in Hartford to begin rewriting Article 3 of the State Constitution regarding the structure and reapportionment of state legislative districts. Moreover, nothing prevented a review and revision of other sections of the constitution.

The opening session of the convention was a scene of dramatic contrast: Television cameras rolled while quill pens from the 1818 era sat on the rostrum. In attendance were

84 delegates from around the state—42 Republicans and 42 Democrats nominated by their respective parties, all uncontested winners in a special election. (At 27, I was the youngest of them.) As we took the oath of office administered by the Secretary of the State Ella T. Grasso, herself a delegate, I felt the historic importance. It was only the third time in the state’s 326-year history that a group of its citizens would be called for such an important task. Following an opening address by Governor John Dempsey, Raymond E. Baldwin was unanimously elected chairman of the convention—the only person in state history to have served as governor, U.S. senator, and chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. I remember thinking at the time that he was the closest we had in our state to a 20th-century George Washington, who had famously presided over the Federal Constitutional Convention in 1787. Throughout four months of convention proceedings, Baldwin conducted himself with great equanimity and charm.

For all the pomp and ceremony that took place on July 1, 1965, and the serious work that followed in the Hall of the House of Representatives at the State Capitol, this conclave was, ironically, one that nobody in a position of power in Connecticut had wanted—not the governor nor leaders of the Republican or Democratic parties, including the legendary John M. Bailey, Democratic state and national chairman. They had become accustomed to the structure of power in the old system, a state house of representatives controlled by Republicans from small towns and a state senate controlled by Democrats from the cities, and almost always in recent years a Democratic governor. The intervention of the federal courts in the 1960s unleashed political uncertainty. However, when it came time to pick delegates, the most impressive group of luminaries sought to become delegates through a process of selection of nominees by state and regional political leaders. And so the conclave included former governors, senators, ambassadors, judges, legislators and mayors—all succeeded in being part of a historic event that for many served as a career capstone. Though I would go on to state and federal office, my public service “portfolio” was rather thin at the time. But thanks to local and state Republican leaders who took an interest in me, I was now on the big stage debating with well-known public figures on issues of importance and feeling more than a little apprehension.

The first debate occurred when we adopted rules of organization and procedure. Our floor leaders, Ella Grasso for the Democrats and H. Meade Alcorn Jr. for the Republicans (a Hartford lawyer and former Republican national chairman), advanced the key rule that no proposal could be approved by the convention and sent to voters unless it received a two-thirds majority vote. They said it was intended to insure bipartisan cooperation. Since Connecticut had a history of strong party control at the time, several delegates (myself among them) were suspicious that we could be in for a “bossed convention.” We resisted, arguing for a more liberal rule, and lost. And we lost again when I sought an expanded number of committees to consider a broader range of constitutional issues.

In the final analysis, the clear need to make important revisions to the Constitution of 1818 beyond our mandate concerning legislative apportionment was accommodated by the rules and willingness of the leaders. The first order of business, though, was to establish new legislative districts for both our state house and senate based on the new federal standard and to provide a strong means of resolving future political stalemates over reapportionment. In addition, we revised Article 8 to formally recognize our entire system of public education, which would become so important in the next decade when advocacy groups and lawsuits moved to establish equal educational funding. Regarding the executive branch (Article 4), we established an elaboration of executive succession and a stronger executive veto authority subject to mandatory legislation review. For voting rights, we eliminated the mandatory party-lever voting and streamlined the process for amending our state constitution. We did some general editing, to make the state constitution read like a modern document while preserving ancient truths.

In retrospect, 50 years later, the rules fight on opening day served to remind our leaders that we had a broader agenda for consideration on that historic occasion. They must have gotten the message, and we did act on urgent matters requiring actions that were overdue. During the summer of 1965, I learned a lot about politics, people, history, and leadership. To be able to help rewrite our state constitution was heady stuff, especially for someone so young. Of the junior members, several would go on to high office, myself included. Thomas J. Meskill and Ella T. Grasso would become back-to-back state governors in the 1970s, James J. Kennelly became speaker of the Connecticut house, Malcolm Baldrige served as U.S. secretary of commerce, and JoAnne Kiely Kulawiz became the first female trial judge in state history. In fact, the 13 women who were delegates were the first women in Connecticut history to participate in the writing of our state constitution.

The amended constitution was approved by the voters of Connecticut in a general referendum on December 14, 1965 by a 2-to-1 margin. Over the years, many delegates have died—approximately 70 members of the original 84-person delegation are gone. I remember them all with great affection and respect.

 

Lawrence J. DeNardis is a former state and U.S. legislator and president of the University of New Haven. He is currently on the board of regents for Connecticut Higher Education and the board of Connecticut Humanities and is working on a book about the state constitution, to coincide with the 375th anniversary of the Fundamental Orders.

 

 

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