Delegates remember Mich. constitutional convention

By Scott Davis

Lansing State Journal

LANSING (AP) -- Eugene Wanger was a wide-eyed political science geek and budding attorney when he entered the former Lansing Civic Center a half-century ago.

The Lansing man and 143 other delegates had a most daunting task -- writing a brand new state Constitution, the fourth in Michigan's history.

At age 28, Wanger was five years younger than Thomas Jefferson when he penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But despite his youth, Wanger was certain he could make a solid contribution.

"I had been a political science major and a lawyer, and I knew something about the political process," said Wanger, who eventually penned the Constitution's death penalty ban. "I was the youngest Republican delegate, but we were all there on an equal basis."

After seven months of wrangling, debate and compromise, the delegates ratified a proposed constitution in 1962 that was approved by Michigan voters in 1963. And nearly five decades later, the document remains the law of the land.

"It has stood the test of time," said Raymond King, 82, who served as a Republican delegate from Pontiac. "People have decided they don't wish to change" to a new constitution.

Recently, 14 of those 144 delegates gathered in the Radisson Hotel to commemorate the start of that civic endeavor 50 years ago last week.

Several delegates spoke with pride of the Constitution they crafted, which mandated equal rights protections for blacks, established the first Civil Rights Commission in the nation, created an auditor general post with stronger oversight powers and streamlined state government departments.

But while some say the Constitution was a good effort for its period, critics say it's time to draft a new document. Last year, state voters rejected a ballot proposal to convene a new constitutional convention.

Craig Ruff, a senior policy fellow for Public Sector Consultants, noted that the Constitution has been amended 32 times since 1963, partly because it has been relatively easy for interest groups to gather signatures from 10 percent of state voters to place an amendment on the ballot. As a result, he said, the document has become a "patchwork" with inconsistencies.

"It's become way too long. ... We haven't amended the federal Constitution 32 times," Ruff said. "On the one hand, you want to cut taxes and limit spending, and on the other hand, you have sections of the (state) Constitution that require more spending."

Though there may be disagreement on the final document, everyone agrees the convention was unique in its diversity. At a time when civil rights issues were coming to the forefront nationally, the group of Michigan delegates drafting a new constitution included female and black delegates for the first time. Michigan had adopted three previous constitutions in 1835, 1850 and 1908.

"We didn't get everything we wanted, as Democrats, but we ended up with a pretty good Constitution," said Raymond Murphy, 83, of Detroit, who was among the black delegates.

Lee Boothby, a Republican delegate from Berrien Springs, said the key factor that made the constitutional convention a success is a word eschewed by some congressional Republicans today -- compromise.

He remembers the deals made among liberal Democrats, moderate suburban Republicans and conservative farm belt Republicans.

"We didn't come up with a constitution with one philosophy," Boothby said. "If we had, it would have been (replaced) a long time ago."

Even though voters have decided against adopting an entirely new constitution, they have fine-tuned it several times by ballot measure. The most recent amendment, passed by voters in 2010, prevents certain felons from running for public office.

Some delegates are not happy about the changes that have been made. Robert Danhof, 86, a Republican delegate then living in Holland, said he can't understand why voters in 1992 approved an amendment limiting state senators to two four-year terms and state representatives to three two-year terms.

He said that gives lawmakers insufficient time to learn the ropes before they end their public service.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," Danhof said. "It takes two years just to find the men's room."

Published: Tue, Oct 11, 2011