When our 2012 Annual Town Meeting convenes on May 7 next, it will find an unusual article on its warrant, inserted by the selectmen on a citizen's petition under state law.
Warrant Article 23 calls upon the Town Meeting which would overturn a decision of the United States Supreme Court relative to corporate and union spending on elections. It would also petition our state legislature to endorse such a constitutional amendment.
The citizen's petition addresses the rights of “persons” under the First, Fifth, and 14th Amendments of our federal Constitution, as interpreted by opinions of the United States Supreme Court over nearly two centuries. It concerns basic rights of all Americans, including residents of Needham, and of the town itself.
In this letter, I do not debate the citizen petition. Instead, I address only (a) whether the subject matter of the petition is properly before our Town Meeting, and (b) whether Town Meeting has the power to deal with it. Constitutionally speaking, the fundamental challenge has to do with the right of individuals, whether alone or in groups, to petition the Congress, their state legislature and other governmental authorities for redress of their grievances.
In New England towns, this jealousy-guarded Right of Free Petition has been honored since early Colonial days, long before it became settled law in their Mother Country. Colonists regarded this right as an essential part of their rights as Englishmen, tracing its origins back to Chapter 68 of Magna Carta (1215), and to English Common Law. And since the early 1600s, their Colonial Laws relative to Town Meetings gave enfranchised local voters the right to petition the Selectmen for the insertion of articles in Town Meeting Warrants. This local Right of Free Petition is embodied in General Laws, c. 39, ss. 11-12, as well as in town charter provisions.
The 17th century saw a bitter battle between King and Parliament over the Stuart Dynasty’s claim to govern by Divine Right, and Parliament’s claim to be the supreme legislative body of the Realm. This battle raged both in the Mother Country and its American Colonies, ending in the victory of Parliament and the enactment of the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the father of our state and federal Bills of Rights, which included among the basic rights of English subjects the right to petition any governmental body or authority for the redress of grievances.
New Englanders, acting through their Town Meetings, were to make good use of the “Right of Englishmen” to protest the policies of King and Parliament in the Stamp Act and other restrictive statutes passed by Parliament, from 1760 onwards to 1774, the eve of the Revolution. These protests usually took the form of votes of special Town Meetings, and soon aroused royal wrath. In 1774, Parliament reacted by passing the Massachusetts Act, which forbade Town Meetings from acting on any business other than purely local business, and required Selectmen to get the permission of the Royal Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony before issuing a special Town Meeting Warrant (which had to have gubernatorial approval). This effort to stifle Town Meetings enraged the towns, and lit the fuse of the American Revolution.
Ultimately, these events led to the adoption of our State Constitution which enshrined the Right of Free Petition (Part I, Art. XIX), most recently further protected by the Municipal Home Rule Amendment of 1966 (Amend. Art. LXXXIX, s. 1). The First and 14th Amendments to the Federal Constitution, modified in 1791 and 1868 respectively, both guarantee the Right of Free Petition.
Thus, it appears that the petition to the selectmen was filed seasonably under state law, and included in the warrant for the 2012 Annual Town Meeting, that is properly before Town Meeting. And the above history indicates that Town Meeting has ample authority to act as it sees fit on the matter.
The responsibility lies with the petitioners to persuade Town Meeting to approve their proposal. Traditionally, Town Meetings have tended to stick to local issues, and to adopt resolutions on state and national matters only when they impact the town and the rights of its citizens significantly. It is expected that proponents of Article 23 will present such a case. Town Meeting will decide.
James Hugh Powers