Click here for the current New York State Constitution (pdf)
Click here for the guide to the constitutional convention
Answers the question: What is a state constitution?
Overview of the NY State Constitution
By Craig Ullman, Effective NY
State constitutions serve a different purpose than the Federal Constitution. State constitutions are more specific in their language. (Florida, for instance, has the exact number of students permitted per class per grade level.) Also, unlike the Federal Constitution, state constitutions can contain positive rights – what the government is obligated to do for its citizens.
For these reasons, state constitutions have been regularly amended or even rewritten. This is also why every twenty years, New Yorkers are asked if they want to hold a constitutional convention. 2017 is one of those years.
The last time the NY State Constitution was completely rewritten was in the 1894 convention, and most of that language is still our constitution today. That convention is best known for the “Forever Wild” article, which has preserved a large part of the Adirondacks from development ever since. It was the first environmental amendment of any state or national constitution.
The 1938 Convention added important labor rights and instituted an obligation by the state government to help the needy. The work of this convention still shapes our laws today.
The last time the voters approved a constitutional convention was in 1967, but the voters didn’t approve the convention’s work and thus, nothing changed. Since then, numerous amendments have passed through the approval of two legislative sessions, the governor, and the voters. However, these amendments have typically been about popular issues like casino gambling or modest changes to existing articles.
The following is a very brief overview of the current New York State Constitution:
ARTICLE I –The Bill of Rights. States can provide more rights than the Federal Constitution, so for instance, many states have adopted an Equal Rights Amendment or overall environmental protections such as clean air, to their constitution. New York’s does not include such protections.
ARTICLE II – Suffrage – This section describes how voters are registered and how they can vote. New York has few enhanced voting rights, such as early voting or no excuse absentee balloting, that many other state constitutions contain.
ARTICLE III -- The Legislature – how the legislatures are organized, the number of state senators, and the like. How senate and assembly districts are drawn and who draws them are a matter of significant debate.
ARTICLE IV – The Executive -- describes the role of the governor and Lt. governor.
ARTICLE V –Officers and Civil Departments, which includes a brief description of the roles of the attorney general and the comptroller and limits the number of civil departments at 20. This article includes the pension protection language from the 1938 convention.
ARTICLE VI – Judiciary – This is the longest section of the constitution which describes the eleven separate trial courts that make up the system (Family Court, Supreme Court, Appellate Court, Surrogate’s Courts, etc.) Other states have more streamlined court systems. California, for instance, has a single integrated court system.
ARTICLE VII – State Finances. This section describes how the state manages its debt. There are significant limitations on how the state handles debt, based on the effects of overbuilding the canal system in the 19th century.
ARTICLE VIII – Local Finances – This section is designed limit the authority of local governments and their ability to raise revenue.
ARTICLE IX – Local Governments – This is the home rule section. “Home rule” is a theory of government that states that decisions are best made at a governmental level closest to the issue. The state court’s interpretation of this article, however, has frequently led the court to defer to the state legislature whenever the legislature decides they have an interest in the issue.
ARTICLE X – Corporations – This section defines how corporations are created in New York.
ARTICLE XI – Education. “The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” That is the entire section on K-12 schools. This article also defines the Regents and the relationship between the public school system and the denominational schools.
ARTICLE XII – This article describes the New York militia.
ARTICLE XIII – This is about Public Officers, what they are paid, how to remove them, and so on. This section also includes payment protections for government workers.
ARTICLE XIV – Conservation – This is the “Forever Wild” section, which preserves part of the state from development.
ARTICLE XV – Canals. Canals were a critical part of the development of the state in the 19th century, although the advent of the railroad dramatically reduced their importance decades before the 1894 convention occurred.
ARTICLE XVI – Taxes. How taxes are raised.
ARTICLE XVII – This is the Social Welfare section that was added in the 1938 convention, making helping the needy a state obligation. This article also includes sections describing prisons and parole.
ARTICLE XVIII – Housing – Empowers the legislature to have low rent housing, slum clearance, and the like.
ARTICLE XIX – How the Constitution is amended.
ARTICLE XX – When to Take Effect – The existing constitution starts on January 1st, 1939, as a result of the 1938 Constitutional Convention.