Wednesday, January 22, 2020
History of ERA Passage
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress in 1972. The original Amendment contained a 7-year deadline in the preamble to the resolution reaching to 1979. Congress extended the deadline to 1982. President Carter signed the extension as a symbolic gesture, as the Constitution gives the President no formal role in amending the Constitution. The Office of Legal Counsel at the time opined that Congress had the power to grant the extension as a procedural move by majority vote. See Memorandum for Robert J. Lipshutz, Counsel to the President, from John M. Harmon, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Constitutionality of Extending the Time Period for Ratification of the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment (Oct. 31, 1977).
Only 32 states ratified the ERA by 1982—3 states shy of the 38 required by the Constitution of ¾ of the states. Momentum from the Women’s Marches, #MeToo movement, and the 2016 Presidential election triggered renewed interest in an equal rights amendment. Nevada then ratified the ERA in 2017, Illinois in 2018, and Virginia in 2020, thus now reaching the 38 states. Five states (Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Dakota) attempted to rescind their ratification in the late 1970s.
Current Challenges to ERA Ratification
In December 2019, three Attorney Generals, two from states that never ratified the ERA (Alabama and Louisiana), and one that attempt to rescind (South Dakota) sued in federal court in the Northern District of Alabama to prevent the National Archivist from recording the ERA, arguing that the deadline had expired and that the rescinded votes could not be counted. Alabama v. Ferriero (N.D. Ala., filed Dec. 16, 2019). They also argued that the ERA would hurt women, undermine state sovereignty, and threaten anti-abortion laws, expand to LGBT rights, and invalidate gender segregation in schools, prisons, sports, and domestic violence shelters.
The National Archivist sought an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel as to the status of the ERA. Office of Legal Counsel, Memorandum, Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (Jan. 2020) The OLC opinion issued in January 2020 advised that Congress did not have the authority to modify the original deadline, disagreed with the prior 1977 OLC opinion supporting extension, and declined to issue an opinion on rescission.
Arguments in Support of Ratification Today
So what do proponents of ERA say? There are good arguments that the ERA remains open for ratification now, despite the past deadlines, and does not require a complete restart of the amendment and ratification process.
1. The original deadline is not mandatory.
a. Deadlines are not required for constitutional amendments. The first 17 amendments did not have a deadline.
b. The deadline is contained in the preamble to the resolution, and not the text of the amendment itself, and therefore is not binding as part of the ratification.
c. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dillon v. Gloss, 256 U.S. 368 (1921) upholding Congress’s power to attach deadlines to constitutional amendments, is incorrect. In Dillon, the Court addressed a challenge to the deadline added for the first time for the Eighteenth Amendment for prohibition.
i. The textual basis for the Court’s holding stemming from Article V of the Constitution is incorrect. Congress’s power to determine the “mode of resolution” means only that Congress can decide whether to amend the Constitution by Congressional proposal or state legislative convention.
ii. Dillon’s conclusion that amendments implicitly require “contemporaneity” was disproven by the 27th Amendment which passed in 1992 after pending for over 200 years. The 27th Amendment prohibits Congress from voting itself pay raises, requiring an intervening election before such raises take effect. It was originally proposed in 1789 as the Second Amendment. While the 27th Amendment did not include an express deadline, its long open ratification period contradicts the Supreme Court’s holding that all amendments must be passed in relatively short time period.
2. Congress has the power to modify the deadline
a. The deadline is merely a procedural adjunct to the amendment, which Congress can modify, extend, or nullify. As a procedural matter, only a majority of the congressional houses is required.
b. The 1977 OLC decision concluded that Congress has the power to extend and thus alter initial deadlines.
c. The Supreme Court held in Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433 (1939), that in the absence of a deadline, Congress may determine after receiving 38 ratifications whether too much time has passed. In Coleman, the Child Labor Amendment was pending for thirteen years. It did not include a deadline. The Supreme Court held that Congress had the authority to determine matters of time and expiration, after ratification by 38 states.
d. Coleman also held, in fractured opinions, that the question of a reasonable time for ratification is a non-justiciable political question, left to Congress and not the courts.
If the deadline does not apply, then the question is whether states can rescind their past ratification. The precedent of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests no. Several states which had ratified the 14th Amendment attempted to rescind their vote. The National Archivist and Congress refused to accept the rescissions, essentially finding them to be irrevocable.
In the context of the ERA, a federal district court in Idaho concluded that states could rescind their votes. Idaho v. Freeman, 529 F. Supp. 1107 (D. Idaho 1981); but see John Carol Constitutional Amendment: Idaho v. Freeman, 16 Akron Law Rev. 151 (1983) (arguing Freeman was wrongly decided). The decision was appealed, and granted cert by the Supreme Court, but was dismissed as moot after expiration of the 1982 deadline.