V.I. asks Congress to send constitution draft back for more work
Published: May 20, 2010
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WASHINGTON — V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen asked the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Wednesday to pass legislation reconvening the Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention so that problem areas in the document can be corrected.
Christensen and Constitution Convention President Gerard Luz James II both testified before the committee Wednesday in a morning-long hearing that briefly dealt with the proposed Virgin Islands Constitution, which is currently before Congress for review. Under federal law, Congress can amend the proposed document, but the draft ultimately must be returned to the people of the territory for a final vote to ratify it.
The 30 members of the Fifth Constitutional Convention spent more than two years creating a draft constitution. When the bare minimum 20 delegates approved it, some hailed it as a triumph of Virgin Islanders’ self-determination, and some deplored it as a discriminatory document that violates the U.S. Constitution.
The draft’s controversial portions — especially those defining ancestral native Virgin Islanders and granting special rights and privileges to them — have slowed the process of getting the draft returned to the people for a vote. As defined in the draft, ancestral native Virgin Islanders are individuals who can trace their ancestry to people living in the territory prior to 1932.
The draft constitution’s provisions would exempt ancestral native Virgin Islanders from paying property taxes on their primary residences or undeveloped land they own and would require that future governors and lieutenant governors be able to trace their bloodlines back to someone born in the Virgin Islands.
Gov. John deJongh Jr., dissenting convention delegates, President Obama and the U.S. Justice Department all have found that provision to be unconstitutional and a violation of federal equal rights laws.
That problem is not the only legal flaw found in the draft. The U.S. Justice Department has provided Congress with an 18-page report detailing several legally questionable provisions. The constitution could be ratified with those provisions unchanged, but because of the questions, the new constitution would immediately be open to legal challenges in territorial and federal courts.
Despite the draft’s legal flaws, many Virgin Islands leaders advocated returning the draft to the territory unchanged so that Virgin Islands voters could decide its fate. They spoke at a March hearing before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.
Christensen told The Daily News on Tuesday that some in Congress were opposed to that option, and on Wednesday she outlined another option.
“We have a choice of years of local court proceedings or reconvening the Constitutional Convention for the purpose of considering the issues raised by the President and the Department of Justice,” Christensen said. “The better and wiser course, I believe, is the latter.
“I recommend that the convention be reconvened for a specific number of days and that it be left to the convention delegates to decide the process that they want to follow.”
Christensen said the federal government would have to appropriate money for the convention to operate.
New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the committee chairman, asked how much money might be needed. James gave an exact answer: $600,268.12. After the hearing, James and convention legal counsel Lloyd Jordan said the money would pay for experts, transcription, hearings, delegate stipends, inter-island travel and public education about the document.
James spent most of his testimony arguing that native rights provisions are necessary. James told Bingaman that the convention would reconvene if it is the Senate’s will.
After the hearing, James said he was confident that some changes would be made to the document if the convention were reconvened.
“We want to have our own document,” he said.
Christensen also asked that if the convention is reconvened, the federal government allow the document to go straight to the territory’s voters and not have to be reviewed again by President Obama and Congress. Christensen said she has faith that the revised document will pass legal muster.
“I am convinced that the 30 individuals elected to the Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention are committed to seeing a document that can be adopted by the people of the Virgin Islands and sent to the people of the Virgin Islands,” Christensen said.
After the hearing, Christensen said that she hopes the process will start moving soon. Congress has until the end of June to take action on the proposed constitution, but Christensen said she hopes it will act before then.
That would allow the convention to reconvene and rework the document so that it could appear on the November general election ballot.
More people would be casting ballots in that election, she said, which will choose the V.I. Legislature, governor, lieutenant governor and delegate.
If the draft constitution comes up for a vote and a majority ratifies it, then the document will become the new supreme law of the territory. If it does not receive more than half of the votes cast, the territory will continue to be governed by the Revised Organic Act of 1954.