More amendments to the N.C. Constitution?

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 02:55 PM

Passing amendments to the North Carolina Constitution is not a common occurrence.  But it’s not unheard of, either.  In the past 10 years, the voters of North Carolina have adopted five amendments to our state constitution.  The most recent constitutional amendment, which passed in May 2012, recognizes marriage between one man and one woman as the only legal union in the state. 

Since the 1970 general election, when the voters adopted the state’s revised constitution and five accompanying measures, North Carolina voters have passed 31 amendments to the N.C. Constitution.  

During this 2013 legislative session, which will wrap up in the coming weeks, legislators proposed 19 different amendments to the North Carolina Constitution.  Of those, four have passed one chamber, and voters in North Carolina could possibly see them on an election ballot next year.  All four amendments have been proposed in at least one previous legislative session. 

Under Article XIII of the N.C. Constitution, one of the two ways to amend the constitution is by legislative proposal.  After a legislator introduces a bill proposing an amendment, three-fifths of all members in each chamber of the General Assembly must vote for the bill before the amendment is presented to the voters for approval or rejection during a statewide election. 
Though Republicans hold more than a three-fifths majority in each chamber and could pass bills proposing amendments on a party-line vote, each of the four proposals that have passed one chamber this year did so with bipartisan support.

One of the proposed amendments, House Bill 8, would amend the N.C. Constitution to allow the taking of private property by eminent domain only for a public use.  Similar versions of the amendment have been proposed in previous legislative sessions in response to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, which held that the city’s taking of private property for an economic development purpose satisfied the “public use” requirement in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  House Bill 8 passed the House chamber during the first weeks of the 2013 session by a 110-8 vote.  In 2011, this amendment passed the House but did not receive a hearing in the Senate.

Another proposed amendment would limit the speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate to two General Assembly terms.  The amendment, if presented to voters and adopted, would limit only an individual’s ability to serve in that leadership position, and would not limit the individual’s service as a state senator or representative.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, no state currently includes a legislative leadership term limit provision in its state constitution.  House Bill 9 passed the House in May by a vote of 85-34.

House Bill 311, which passed the House by unanimous vote, would abolish the current state constitutional requirement (Article VI, Section 4) that individuals registering to vote first read and write a section of the Constitution.  This literacy test has been declared unconstitutional under federal law, so the amendment would remove this language from the state constitution.  The amendment was originally presented to and rejected by voters in the 1970 general election.

A fourth possible constitutional amendment that could be presented to North Carolina voters in 2014 would allow a defendant accused of a noncapital crime to waive the right to a jury trial and instead be tried by a judge.  A criminal defendant may waive this right to a jury trial under federal law with consent, and some other states allow this as well.  Senate Bill 399 unanimously passed the Senate in May.

Each of the four proposals will still need to pass the other chamber by a three-fifths vote before appearing on the ballot in 2014.  If this happens, voters in North Carolina will have the opportunity to decide, once again, whether or not to amend our state constitution.

Paige Worsham is the policy analyst for the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.