The Equal Rights Amendment was back in the news this week. All eyes are on Virginia where a bill to ratify the ERA is working its way through the state legislature. The bill is expected to pass, making Virginia the 38th state to ratify the amendment, setting up a big constitutional fight.
Congress set a seven-year deadline for ratification and only 35 states had done so before the allotted time expired in 1982. Recently, three states - Alabama, Louisiana, and South Dakota - have sued the Archivist of the U.S. for illegally holding the ratification process open beyond the deadline and refusing to recognize the fact that five states rescinded their ratification by 1982.
This past week, the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel weighed in with an opinion stating “because three-fourths of the state legislatures did not ratify before the deadline that Congress imposed, the Equal Rights Amendment has failed of adoption and is no longer pending before the States.” It would be unusual for the Archivist, who is part of the executive branch, to ignore the definitive statement of the executive branch on the subject.
Democrats have introduced legislation to have Congress remove the deadline. The Justice Department opinion said there is no constitutional text or judicial precedent allowing for that. [p.28] While Congress has already extended the ERA deadline once, the Justice Department said the pending legislation is different this go-around because it purports to remove ANY deadline, not just extend the ERA again for another definite period of years. [p. 26] Also, removing the deadline would raise a whole host of nettlesome questions, such as whether a future Congress could kill a proposed amendment by shortening the deadline, and whether a two-third’s vote would be required for all questions relating to changing the substance or procedures of proposed amendments.
But the Justice Department does not have the final say. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has already said he will defend the ERA in court when the state ratifies it.
You can be sure all of this will end up in the Supreme Court eventually. Don’t forget the question of whether states can rescind their ratifications. The Constitution is silent and the Justice Department gave no opinion.
Lots of unanswered constitutional questions here. The show is about to begin.