USVI Senate authorizes constitutional convention to try again

From the Virgin Islands Daily News:

ST. THOMAS – The V.I. Senate voted Tuesday evening to give the Fifth Constitutional Convention one more chance to do the job it was elected to do in 2007.

By an 8-6 margin, the Senate approved a bill proposed and amended by Senate President Ronald Russell to deal with the territory’s lingering lack of a governing document.

The Virgin Islands is one of the last entities under the United States flag that has yet to draft and ratify its own governing document. The territory has had five constitutional conventions – in 1964, 1971, 1977, 1980 and 2007 – that did not produce a successful document.

The Fifth Constitutional Convention passed a controversial draft constitution in 2009.

President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Congress ultimately sent the draft back to the territory in 2010 with recommendations to remove certain provisions granting native Virgin Islanders special rights based on birth or ancestry.

That never happened.

Russell convened a series of meetings in late July on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John to solicit public input about how to proceed. At those meetings, Russell floated a bill that would have dissolved the Fifth Constitutional Convention and allowed the Senate, with its own legal team, to incorporate the recommended changes and move forward.

That proposal prompted outcry from several residents who attended the meetings, including members of the Fifth Constitutional Convention.

That same bill was on the Senate’s agenda for Tuesday, but Russell introduced an amended version that changed directions. The new bill would establish something called the Fifth Revision Convention that would include the 30 elected delegates to the Fifth Constitutional Convention and a nonvoting, five-member legal team. Attorneys on the legal team would include the chief legal counsel of the 29th Legislature and attorneys appointed by the V.I. Bar Association, the governor, the V.I. Supreme Court and the president of the Legislature.

The bill also would impose a deadline requiring the Fifth Revision Convention, by a two-thirds vote of the Fifth Constitutional Convention, to adopt a new draft document by Oct. 31. If a new draft is not adopted, both the Fifth Revision Convention and the Fifth Constitutional Convention would be dissolved, giving the Legislature the full authority to address the constitution issue as it deems appropriate.

Those who supported the bill, including Russell, said the amended version adequately incorporates the concerns raised at the meetings, and they praised the deadline imposed on the Fifth Constitution Convention to get the job done.

“My sentiment is that they really don’t deserve a second opportunity to do anything,” Sen. Louis Hill said. “They were told over and over again throughout the process that what they were doing was unconstitutional, but they refused to listen to the advice of their own counsel and sent the document. If in 30 days the constitutional convention cannot find the wisdom to accept the advice by five attorneys, then we can say we give up.”

Others remained unconvinced that giving the Fifth Constitution Convention another chance was the right call.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” Sen. Celestino White Sr. said. “The only thing this does is it creates a situation to bring more people out for the election. I believe that’s a good political thing to do, but is that what this whole thing is about?”

Were the USVI to adopt a constitution, this wouldn’t affect its status as a non-self governing territory. Instead, it would only affect internal administration, which the territory’s Organic Act has done for the last 58 years.

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