The citizens can change the Pennsylvania constitution by amendment or convention. Our constitution contains a provision that establishes a detailed procedure for amending single sections. Under that procedure the legislature must enact a statute proposing the amendment to a section of the constitution in two successive legislative sessions, and after each enactment a majority of Pennsylvania citizens must vote affirmatively for the proposed constitutional changes in a general election. The citizens of Pennsylvania have amended sections of their constitution numerous times since this constitutional provision for amendment was adopted in the Constitution of 1838.
Although there is no express language that spells out procedures for a constitutional convention, the Pennsylvania Constitution contains clear language in Article 1, Section 2 that authorizes conventions:
Pennsylvanians have made major changes to their constitution five times by convention.
Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.
The events involving the American Colonists' growing dissatisfaction with King George and English rule that led to the American Revolution are well-known. There were also strong geographic and economic conflicts and resentments within Pennsylvania that contributed significantly to the form and nature of the first constitution adopted in 1776.
In the mid- eighteenth century farmers and settlers in the central and western part of Pennsylvania harbored strong resentment against the bankers, merchants and aristocrats in the eastern part of the state because Quaker power holders there were pacifists and would not send military help to settlers, who were being attacked by Indians. Moreover, political power was retained in the east by limiting the franchise and by refusal to admit new counties in the west, even after they became relatively heavily settled. Tradesmen in the east were resentful of the Pennsylvania political power structure, because they could not vote and were unrepresented.
On May 15, 1776 the Continental Congress issued a call by for the colonies to overthrow England's rule and establish constitutions of their own that would insure the "happiness and safety" of their inhabitants. Various committees that had been established in every county of Pennsylvania then met, conducted an election, and held a constitutional convention. The convention created the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.
That first Pennsylvania constitution, like most constitutions, contained two main parts: a declaration or bill of individual rights and a frame or structure of government. The first Pennsylvania declaration or bill of rights was heavily influenced by the prior government of proprietor William Penn, who as a Quaker recognized generally in the document governing the colony that "all men have a right: to life, liberty, property, happiness, and safety." The Declaration also granted numerous specific individual rights. The Declaration of Rights in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was a major source contributing to the federal bill of rights. The first constitution of Pennsylvania also lifted all restrictions on voting, and made provision for adding counties and reapportionment. The Declaration of Rights was so farsighted that only a very few of its provisions have been changed since 1776, and they are still part of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The frame or structure of government created by the Constitution of 1776 was a complete failure as a blueprint for government; it worked so badly that the federal government and other states used it as a model for how not to structure their government in a constitution. The first Pennsylvania Constitution created a unicameral legislature with a clause granting all powers necessary to operate a free state to the legislature. It also provided for appointment of judges for a term of seven years, an executive consisting of a governor and council, and an entity called the Council of Censors. Provisions in the constitution provided that the people themselves would be a check on the legislature, and the Council of Censors every seventh year could recommend that unjust laws be repealed or that the constitution by amended.
This structure of government was unsuccessful. Under it, there were no effective checks on, nor any power to balance against, the legislature. As a result, the legislature took many actions that appeared to be despotic. For example, the legislature directly overruled judicial cases that it did not agree with, and it confiscated property of persons suspected of being Tories sympathetic to England without trial, and also set aside jury verdicts. Further, except for the Legislature, the government was completely paralyzed. The Council of Censors had no real power to check the legislature; the executive had no veto power.
Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790
Soon after adoption of the Constitution of 1776, it became apparent that there were many problems with it, and in the mid to late 1780's a campaign began to change the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Assembly enacted a statute that created a constitutional convention in 1789. The convention met and created a new constitution which the state adopted in 1790.
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 resembled more modern constitutions with which we are familiar today. It provided for a bicameral legislature elected by the citizens at a general election, a single governor elected for a three year term with power to veto statutes, and for a judiciary appointed by the governor removable only by impeachment. A major advance was that the Declaration of Rights of the Constitution of 1790 prohibited the legislature from taking away individual rights protected by the Declaration.
The Pennsylvania constitution of 1790 has been described as a "model" constitution. Because of its workable frame of government with effective checks and balances and its extensive Declaration of Rights that was expressly declared to be protected from arbitrary government action. It created a workable government and protected citizen rights from arbitrary government invasion.
Pennsylvania Constitution of 1838
A movement grew up after the War of 1812 with England to limit the appointive power of the governor and to elect judges. The perception was that the executive had grown too strong and was abusing its powers. In 1837 the legislature enacted a call for a constitutional convention that the voters approved.
A constitutional convention was held in 1837 that produced a proposal that the voters approved in 1838. The Constitution of 1838 retained most of the features of the Constitution of 1790, but made several changes. The new constitution took away the power of the governor to appoint local officials, and forced him to share appointment power of judges with the Senate. The legislature was prohibited from granting special favors to corporations and from giving the power of eminent domain to them. The life tenure of judges was eliminated and they were given terms of fifteen years. Also, the new constitution contained the provision, still retained, for amendment of single sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Pennsylvania made use of this amendment procedure in the years following adoption of the 1838 Constitution. In 1850, an amendment made all judicial offices in the Commonwealth elective; in 1857 an amendment changed the size of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and imposed some restrictions on the power of the legislature relative to creation of new counties and to favors in granting corporate charters.
Pennsylvania Constitution of 1874
The late nineteenth century, the time of the "Robber Barons," was a period of widespread and wrenching economic and demographic change. It was a period of rapid and enormous growth in the economy and the population. Individuals amassed great fortunes, and corporations and trusts grew into enormous economic entities. This great wealth led to widespread corruption in government.
As economic growth continued, it became clear that the legislature was unwilling or unable to cope with this growth in a manner consistent with its duties to the public. Many legislators were corrupt. They granted special favors to corporations in return for money, they created special arrangements that benefitted them and their business associates through "sweetheart" deals for municipal improvements, and they gave lobbyists for business interests pretty much whatever they asked for. By the 1860's honest politicians and citizens began a call for a constitutional convention. The legislature authorized a referendum on whether to hold a convention in 1871, and, after voter approval, a convention was held in 1873. The voters approved the proposed constitutional changes at an election in 1874.
The Constitution of 1874 made extensive changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution. Many of those changes involved the legislature. First, the convention increased the size of the legislature on the theory that it would be more difficult to bribe a larger number of legislators. Second, it placed specific procedural limitations on the legislature in the enactment of statutes. The subject of each bill had to be clearly stated in the title; except for appropriation bills, all bills had to be on a single subject; no bill could be altered during its passage to change its purpose; all bills had to be reported out of committee before enactment; all bills had to be printed before enactment; every law had to be enacted in the form of a bill; every bill had to be read to the chamber on three separate days; and the presiding officer of each chamber had to sign each bill in the presence of the members of that chamber. There were also substantive limits placed on the legislature which related primarily to limiting ability of the legislature to grant special favors to corporations and to business associates in performing local municipal improvements. The governor was given a line item veto, the legislative vote to overcome a gubernatorial veto was increased to two thirds of the voting members of each chamber of the legislature, and the governor was given the power to call a special session of the legislature. The Constitution of 1874 contained specific provisions to control the activities of corporations as well as specific prohibitions against railroads and canal companies. It also enacted major reforms to voting procedure and eligibility.
Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968
At the beginning of the twentieth century it became obvious that there were serious problems with the Constitution of 1874, and that it was insufficient to meet problems of the new century. As a result, a succession of governors campaigned on the issue of constitutional reform and sought to convene constitutional conventions. Between 1900 and 1968, the voters defeated no less than six proposals for constitutional conventions to revise the Constitution.
In the 1950's calls for a revision of the constitution were widespread. A succession of governors and attorneys general, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, some members of the legislature, and numerous nonprofit organizations joined the call for a limited constitutional convention. In 1967 the voters approved the call for a limited constitution convention. It was held in 1967-1968, and the convention proposals were approved by the voters in 1968.
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 completely revised the judiciary article. It created a unified judicial system and a new intermediate appellate court, the Commonwealth Court. It created the Philadelphia Municipal Court and authorized the creation of community courts. The Supreme Court was given general supervisory and administrative power over all courts in the state, including justices of the peace. The new constitution also gave the Supreme Court extensive rulemaking power and created a Judicial Inquiry and Review Board to deal with judicial discipline. The 1968 Constitution also revised the local government provisions to permit home rule by municipalities. It changed the legislative reapportionment provisions by creating a reapportionment commission to operate every ten years after census. And it made improvements to taxation. The governor and lieutenant governor were required to run together, and were made eligible for a second term.