Constitutional Convention's vision for V.I. government

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ST. THOMAS - As the dust settled from an unruly meeting of the Fifth Constitutional Convention on Saturday, at least some convention leaders are saying the body has met its legal requirement to address problems in a 2009 draft of the constitution.

The requirement to fix the document stems from a law passed by the V.I. Legislature in August and signed into law Sept. 11. The law establishes a body called the Fifth Revision Convention, which consists of the 30 delegates elected to the Fifth Constitutional Convention plus five attorneys - the chief legal counsel of the 29th Legislature; a V.I. Bar association appointee; an attorney appointed by the governor; an attorney appointed by the chief justice of the V.I. Supreme Court; and an attorney appointed by the president of the Legislature.

The Fifth Revision Convention was tasked with meeting between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31 to adopt, by a two-thirds vote of all the delegates, a version of the constitution that fixes nine areas of concern highlighted by the federal government in the 2009 draft constitution.

If the Revision Convention fails to meet that goal, the process of revising the draft constitution is turned over the Legislature, according to the law.

But one day out from the Oct. 31 deadline, it is unclear whether the convention met its.

Several delegates on Saturday made it clear that the body was meeting as the Fifth Constitutional Convention - not the Fifth Revision Convention called for in the law.

In addition, the Fifth Constitutional Convention on Saturday did not vote to approve any single document. Instead, they discussed a list of changes to the 2009 draft. The law explicitly states the Fifth Revision Convention is supposed to agree upon a "proposed revised draft" of the constitution.

Still, members of the convention's executive committee - consisting of Vice President Lawrence Sewer, Sergeant-At-Arms Stedmann Hodge Jr. and Treasurer Mario Francis - said Monday that the 21-3 vote in favor of the changes satisfies the requirements in the law and should keep the Fifth Constitutional Convention in the driver's seat for the constitution's future beyond Wednesday.

"Forget the Senate," Sewer said. "We could do an entirely different document next week and they would not have any say."

Seated around a table in a bar near the Western Cemetery on Monday afternoon, the committee members - who refer to themselves as "The Triangle" - argued that Saturday's vote on the nine changes made it superfluous to vote on an entirely new draft.

Hodge acknowledged that the decision by the three men will upset people.

"Lawsuit this and lawsuit that," Hodge said. "But the law says we had to change the nine recommendations and nothing else."

Sewer also said several delegates' confusion at Saturday's meeting about which draft was being discussed and voted on stemmed largely from a draft inappropriately circulated by attorneys appointed to the Fifth Revision Convention. Sewer said the attorneys never were asked to send out a draft document and that, even so, their document was similar, if not identical, to a revised version incorporating the changes approved at the meeting.

"We removed the nine controversial areas like they asked us to do, and we got a two-thirds vote on it," Francis said. "That's our document."

As simple as it sounded among the three committee members Monday, difficulty in defining "our document" was a key contributor to the hullabaloo at Saturday's meeting. The meeting participants expressed confusion about which draft of the constitution the nine changes were modifying and about which draft the convention intended to send back to the federal government.

The disorganization, along with technical problems with the teleconferencing equipment connecting St. Thomas and St. Croix, eventually led to the adjournment of the meeting while two motions remained on the floor.

That confusion persisted well into Monday.

Prior to the committee meeting Monday afternoon, delegate Sen. Craig Barshinger said he was struggling to explain Saturday's meeting and the lack of follow-up to conduct another meeting to adopt a new draft constitution as required by the law. He said he recognized the confusion at Saturday's meeting was likely a political strategy, but he was not sure what purpose it served.

"It's like if you have a bunch of people who are hungry for pizza, and then I give you pizza, and you don't eat it," Barshinger said.

Hodge said those delegates who were confused on Saturday did not regularly attend convention meetings.

"Everyone that attended the meetings knew that we were not considering the document from the legal team," Hodge said.

Committee members on Monday would outline the path forward only in broad strokes.

First, the Fifth Constitutional Convention's lawyers will make sure the changes are incorporated appropriately into the 2009 draft, Sewer said.

Then "courtesy copies" of the new document will be sent to the Legislature and the governor.

Sewer said the document also needs approval from the U.S. Congress before it can come before Virgin Islanders for a vote - probably no sooner than 2014.

"Congress told us to take out what's controversial and we did and we kept it simple," Hodge said. "If the people of the Virgin Islands don't support this, I don't know what's next."

Sewer added a cryptic final comment about the Wednesday deadline: "Trick or treat."

- Contact Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email recent draft of the proposed V.I. Constitution would provide for three branches of government outlined as follows:

- Legislative: The unicameral Legislature shall consist of no fewer than 11 and no more than 15 senators to be elected at-large and by district. Starting in 2014, the Senate would consist of seven at-large senators, three of whom are residents of St. Croix and three of whom are residents of St. Thomas or St. John, and one whom is a resident of St. John. The remaining eight senators would be elected from two yet-unestablished sub-districts on St. Thomas and St. Croix. At-large senators would be elected to four-year terms and sub-district senators would serve two-year terms.

- Executive: The executive branch would consist of a governor and lieutenant governor, to be elected jointly, as well as various executive departments and agencies.

- Judicial: The judicial branch would consist of a Supreme Court with at least three justices that would have appellate jurisdiction over all cases arising under the constitution and the laws of the Virgin Islands. The constitution would also establish the Superior Court under the oversight of a presiding judge. All judges and justices would be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Legislature; however, all appointees first would have to be nominated by a nine-member judicial commission.

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