So You Say You Want a Constitutional Convention?
New America's Steven Hill had an interesting op-ed in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. California, he said, needs a constitutional convention. Yep. At this point, that's about as controversial as saying Jon and Kate's kids are going to need therapy. The question is how do you structure it? If you appoint the delegates, then who appoints them? The discredited legislature? And if you elect the delegates, then aren't the winners likely to be backed by the same machines and interests as the legislature?
Hill has another idea: random selection.
The Bay Area Council, a group of business leaders, has proposed randomly selecting 400 Californians to create a body of average citizens who could bring their common sense and pragmatism to the problems at hand. Those delegates would be paid to participate for eight months, starting with an intensive two-month education process in which they would hear from many experts about the problems and potential solutions for California.
Random selection likely would be the best method for ensuring a truly representative body and for shielding delegates against special-interest influence. And a group made up of "people just like us" brings a sense of grass-roots legitimacy to the process.
Interestingly, a statewide poll commissioned by the New America Foundation in November 2006 found strong support (73%) for a randomly selected deliberative body, and that the public has a lot more trust in such a "citizen body" than in a government-appointed panel or even a panel of independent experts.
This has, I think, some real appeal, although there's obviously the question of who would choose the experts, advisers and so forth. But I might suggest even a fourth alternative. Call it six degrees of constitutional conventions. Identify your 400 randomly selected Californians and ask them to nominate the person they think best equipped to serve at this convention. They, after all, know their communities and social networks better than we do. They know who is civically minded and preternaturally judicious. And then use those people. That gives you the benefits of an insulated selection process but blunts some of the disadvantages of randomness.
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