Constitution melee still roiling
Published: November 1, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - As the statutory deadline for the Fifth Constitutional Convention to adopt a new draft of the territory's constitution passed on Wednesday, the status of the convention and its work remained as murky as ever.
The convention intended to approve a new draft of a constitution at a meeting on Saturday, according to previous statements by Fifth Constitutional Convention President Gerard Luz James II.
However, telecommunication problems between St. Thomas and St. Croix, along with confusion about which of at least two drafts of the document delegates were considering for approval, led to a breakdown of the meeting before any draft was passed. Instead, the delegates approved a series of nine changes to some version of the document and went home.
At a meeting Monday, the convention's executive committee - consisting of Vice President Lawrence Sewer, Sergeant-At-Arms Stedmann Hodge Jr. and Treasurer Mario Francis - argued that the nine changes met the requirements of a law passed by the Senate in August.
Most prominently, the committee members said the changes address nine areas of concern that the U.S. Justice Department pointed out in the Convention's 2009 draft constitution.
However, a rubric of eight changes provided Monday by the committee does not speak directly to at least four problematic areas, including the U.S. Justice Department's concern about provisions guaranteeing legislative representation of certain geographic areas. A red-lined draft of the constitution, also provided by the committee, appears to address more of these items to some degree, but all of the changes were not voted upon Saturday.
Regardless, the committee said this draft, by virtue of the nine changes, meets the requirements of the law because it previously was approved and has since only been revised. James said Wednesday he takes "basically" the same position.
"There's not much I can say now - you'll have to talk to the Senate president," James said. "Since the president brought that legislation forward, he placed a time limit on us. He wanted to take over and do what he wanted to do."
Senate President Ronald Russell, who sponsored the bill that eventually imposed the deadline on the convention, did not return a call to The Daily News for comment.
James said the convention intended to abide by the law but also recognized it was unclear whether the convention actually complied.
"I don't know if we violated a section of the law," he said.
None of the five attorneys appointed under the law to advise the convention on its revisions could be reached for comment Wednesday. However, one of the attorneys, Mark Hodge, wrote an email to the delegates on Monday that highlights at least one example of the problems that arise from the convention claiming it addressed the federal government's concerns without having adopted a complete document. Hodge mentioned that a possible draft of the constitution provided by the convention's attorney, Lloyd Jordan, may have failed to address one of the federal government's concerns regarding apportionment by requiring that one senator come from St. John regardless of population.
"If that is the case, attorney Jordan failed to cure at least one of the 9 issues identified by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress," Hodge wrote.
At least two recent drafts of the constitution - one backed by the committee and one submitted by Trudy Fenster, chief counsel of 29th Legislature, on behalf of the legal team to the convention - contain the exact same language that the U.S. Justice Department pointed out as problematic with respect to the St. John senator.
According to the law, if the convention fails to adopt a revised constitution in accordance with the federal recommendations, the convention is dissolved and the revision process is turned over to the Legislature to handle "as it deems appropriate."
James said that means the next move belongs to the Senate; first senators must determine whether the convention followed the law and, if not, what to do next.
"We were given a job to do, and we've done part of it in terms of getting the nine points of concern addressed," he said. "Now it's in the Senate president's hands. He's the one who came and abridged what we were trying to do."
James ended with a note that sounded more like a goodbye than a see-you-soon.
"I just want to thank everyone who gave me an opportunity to be a delegate and to those 29 delegates who gave me an opportunity to be a leader," he said.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.