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EDITORIALS

Editorial: Spruce up the outdated Ohio Constitution

Staff Writer
The Columbus Dispatch
The interior of the rotunda at the Ohio Statehouse

Ohio’s state legislative leaders are looking for good-government initiatives.

In the wake of massive scandal, new House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Larry Obhof understand the timeliness of initiatives that speak to the common good.

In assessing a state’s overall health status, nothing is as important as the shape of its foundation document. Nothing is as basic as having a modern, respected and workable state constitution.

Ohio doesn’t have one. The Ohio Constitution, at 169 years old, is the nation’s sixth oldest. Little surprise it’s full of archaic, obsolete and offensive constructions.

In 2011, then-Speaker William G. Batchelder recognized the problem. A former judge and constitutional scholar, he sponsored legislation to create a 32-member bipartisan commission to study the Ohio Constitution and recommend updates.

The commission was authorized to work until July 2021. Unfortunately, in 2017 then-Senate President Keith Faber (now state auditor) slipped a poison pill into the state budget bill to kill the commission. His motivation, whatever it was, was not grounded in high principle.

In the absence of a state constitutional convention, the last of which was held in 1912, and with the unlikely prospect of another, there’s no substitute for a periodic commission to examine the constitution and recommend updates.

Fortunately, during its existence from 2011 to 2017, the latest commission identified several deficiencies and proposed amendments to remedy them. Those proposals, still sitting on the shelf, should be taken up and put before the General Assembly so they can be forwarded to Ohio voters.

Cupp and Obhof are familiar with the proposals because both were active and influential members of the constitutional modernization commission.

The proposed amendments aren’t sexy. They won’t energize voters. But if a state’s leaders can’t muster the effort for a constitutional tune-up at least once each generation (following the advice of none other than Thomas Jefferson), they indict themselves for dereliction.

It’s important to note that, even though Faber killed the commission, its research and debate prior to the poisoning paved the way for the successful 2015 vote on state apportionment reform and the successful 2018 vote on congressional redistricting reform.

Among the commission’s good-sense proposals:

  • Eliminate an 1851 provision for courts of conciliation for resolution of disputes outside the traditional legal process. They’ve never been used, long ago made meaningless by modern arbitration proceedings.
  • Eliminate an 1875 section creating the Supreme Court Commission to relieve backlogs of cases. Unused since 1885, it has no function.
  • Repeal sections authorizing the issuance of debt and creating bonding authority for programs completed long ago, for which bonding authority is exhausted and for which debt was completely repaid. Examples include the World War II compensation fund and the Korean War bonus fund.
  • Repeal provisions dealing with the Sinking Fund Commission, whose responsibilities long ago were taken over by the state treasurer.
  • Eliminate sexist, gender-inappropriate language from dozens of sections of the constitution, relics of decades before women had the right to vote.
  • Eliminate language denying the “privileges of an elector” to “idiots or insane persons,” as well as references to the “blind and deaf and dumb.”

Some of the recommendations would remove language that long ago became unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution — a fact that should embarrass even a freshman state legislator.

The Ohio Constitution is too important to be covered in cobwebs.