The recent talk about convening a new constitutional convention may seem like a conversation worth having. A recent Civil Beat poll showed that 67 percent of respondents favored holding the first Hawaii state constitutional convention since 1978.

Certainly one can find frustrated voters and political junkies on the both side of the partisan divide who feel that a con con — as it is popularly known — would be a perfect forum for hashing out contested issues and making a number of amendments to the state’s own constitution.

The reality is that a con con is not really needed nor should it be desired.

A constitutional convention was needed in 1968, but not today, the author argues. Civil Beat

One reason is that a constitutional convention has outlived its usefulness. Hawaii became a U.S. state in 1959. Thus when a constitutional convention was held in 1968, it was absolutely needed. Hawaii had not been a state yet 10 years, and having a convention provided an opportunity to partially mold and shape the broad legal construct for Hawaii. It also helped provide a certain identity for the still new state.

This was also at work during 1978,  which saw the the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as one of the institutions created as a result of that year’s con con.

No Useful Purpose

After more than 50 years as a state, the basic constitutional contours of Hawaii are pretty well defined. Thus, having a state con con would serve no useful structural purpose constitutionally speaking. 

Another reason is that contrary to the beliefs of some, a con con would not represent “democracy.” The notion that convening a con con would result in “more control” for local communities is an odd one. Did the 1968 and 1978 conventions cede any political or economic control to varied communities across the state? No. Simply adding to and amending the state’s constitution is not in and itself a move in favor of greater democracy for this Pacific body politic. 

A new con con may “taste great” but ultimately has “less filling.”

Convening a new convention could mean that extremist and far right-wing elements find a way to eliminate portions of the constitution such as trying to expel rights to collective bargaining for unions or sneak in socially conservative “reforms.” Such moves would not go over well in what has traditionally been a centrist though still solidly Democratic Party state and might be harmful to vulnerable groups throughout Hawaii.

It should also be noted that a con con would require choosing delegates who then vote on proposed changes and new amendments during the convention. This isn’t precisely an improvement over elected officials, especially considering that a number of future politicians such John Waihee and Jeremy Harris had their political careers incubated years ago as delegates to the 1978 con con.

Finally, no one views the state’s constitution as the literal or even symbolic arbiter of liberty and rights in Hawaii. I know of no local resident who has ever carried around a copy of the state constitution with them and referred to the rights contained herein. I have never heard anyone in any discussion of economic and political issues throughout the state talk about the importance of the state’s constitution or treat it as a vital document. In fact, I rarely hear anyone talk about the state constitution — except lawyers and elected officials.

A new con con sounds like a move in favor of greater democracy, but there isn’t anything inherently more democratic about having a new state constitutional convention. Convening such an event is, after all, another extension of representative democracy, not direct democracy.

Much like those old Miller Lite TV ads of the ’70s, a new con con may “taste great” but ultimately has “less filling.”

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