May 21, 2003 - Administration and legislative officials are advocating the calling of a fifth Constitutional Convention in the next year to create a document that would replace the Revised Organic Act of 1954. A bill is before the Legislature to do so.
Virgin Islands residents have made four attempts -- in 1965, 1972, 1978 and 1980 -- thus far to write their own constitution. None has succeeded, but all offer lessons to be learned.
The first Constitutional Convention was held in 1964 and 1965. It included 33 delegates: the 15 sitting senators and 18 others who were popularly elected. The convention was presided over by Dr. Aubrey Anduze. A bill of rights and a unicameral legislature were two of its basic issues. It quickly produced a document which was approved by its members on Feb. 26, 1965, and was transmitted directly to the U.S. Congress.
The document presented several significant reforms: an elected governor, an elected congressional representative, the right to vote for the U.S. president, the right of 18-year-olds to vote, a V.I. comptroller appointed by V.I. governor, and the right to propose Organic Act amendments. The Congress addressed certain of these over the next several years, but in a piecemeal approach.
The delegates were: Ann Abramson, Aubrey Anduze, Vivian Anduze, Bertha Boschulte, James Bough, James Bridgeman, Warren Brown (secretary), Clarice Bryan (assistant secretary), Horace Callwood, Lee M. Cole Jr., Morris de Castro (vice president), Mario de Chabert, Ron de Lugo, Augustin Doward, Basilio Felix, Felix A. Francis, Vincente Garcia Garcia, James O'Neal Henderson, Randall N. James, Frits Lawaetz, John L. Maduro, Theovald E. Moorehead, Diaz Aureo Morales, Earle B. Ottley, David Puritz, Percival Reese, Ruby M. Rouss, Axel Schade, Roy Sewer, Julius E. Sprauve Jr., Angel Suarez Jr., Manuel Torres and Charles W. Turnbull.
The second Constitutional Convention began work in September 1971 with Earle B. Ottley as chair. There were 33 appointed delegates, including the 15 sitting members of the Legislature; the other delegates were selected by the three political parties: the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Independent Citizens Movement (ICM).
Delegates stressed a bill of rights and improved federal relations, and their plan offered proposals for the reorganization of all three branches of government. A document was produced with an Aug. 10, 1972, dateline and was reported in the news as receiving unanimous approval of the 24 delegates present on Sept. 12, 1972.
Despite dissension among delegates regarding a referendum date, two documents -- a proposed Constitution and a proposed Federal Relations Act -- were presented to the voters in the general election of Nov. 7, 1972. The vote was 7,279 for and 5,518 against.
There were charges that it was an illegal referendum, and a newspaper editorial following the official count on Nov. 13, 1972, termed it "a dubious referendum." While the enabling Act 3068 clearly states the make-up of the delegation, William Boyer in his book "America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs," published in 1983, inexplicably stated the convention comprised "the same members [as the first convention] except that they were not elected."
The 15 sitting senators were obviously not all the same in 1971 as in 1965, nor were the delegates chosen by party the same persons. No official documents have been found to substantiate the delegate list or later written reports that the proposed documents "failed to be ratified by the voters" and were therefore not forwarded to Congress.
An article by Julio Brady stated that Delegate Ron de Lugo reasoned that the low voter turnout did not result in a mandate, and therefore he did not forward the proposed constitution and act to Congress. De Lugo did, however, introduce legislation to allow Virgin Islanders to draft their own constitution at any time in the future, and this was passed into law by Congress in 1976 as PL 94-584. In testimony at a congressional hearing, de Lugo stated that the 1972 convention products did not "demonstrate the substantial support of the people, and the delegates were appointed and not elected."
Despite a newspaper report of April 10, 1971, that the delegates were "to meet for no more than 10 days," members of this convention put in an astonishing number of hours and reconvened regularly between September 1971 and September 1972. The convention took place in a tumultuous social climate where the "unmentionable disease" was VD, the "free beaches" movement was in full swing and Harold Haizlip and John Harding were up for confirmation as Cabinet commissioners. The documents were officially approved by the delegates five days following the notorious Fountain Valley killings.
The following list of delegates was culled from written reports of the party meetings for the purpose of choosing delegates and of the organizing first session:
The senators: Virdin Brown, Hector Cintron, Philip Clark, Felix Francis, Jaime Garciaz, John Maduro, Ariel Melchior Jr., Claude Molloy, Alexander Moorehead, George O'Reilly Jr., Athniel Ottley, Earle B. Ottley, David Puritz, Percival Reese, Elroy Sprauve. (O'Reilly was appointed by Gov. Melvin Evans after the death of Sen. Lew Muckle on May 5, 1971.)
The delegates as chosen by party (11 each):
Democratic Party - Sens. Maduro, Athniel Ottley, Earle Ottley, Percival and Puritz. Others: Leonile Gordon, Hilario James, Sidney Lee, William Lomax, Charles Turnbull, Patrick Williams.
Independent Citizens Movement - Sens. Brown, Francis, Melchior, Molloy, Moorehead, Sprauve. Others: Bertha Boschulte, Gerald Christian, Richard Joyce, Cyril E. King, Juan Luis Monell.
Progressive Republican Party - Sens. Cintron, Clark, Garciaz, O'Reilly. Others: Luther Benjamin, Ruth Gordon, Thomas Ireland, Richard Maguire, Henry Rohlsen, Walter Seipel, Rennie Starling.
Convention officers elected at the Sept. 8, 1971, initial meeting were: Earle B. Ottley, chair; Moorehead, vice chair; Turnbull, secretary; and Francis, assistant secretary. Elmo Roebuck was mentioned as alternate, but because he had not been sworn in he did not participate in the voting for delegate Maduro, who was involved in an automobile accident en route to the meeting.
The third Constitutional Convention was authorized by Public Law No 94-584 of the Legislature. On October 3, 1977, 60 delegates were sworn in by a Territorial Court judge and by law given 120 days to complete their task. The group elected Alexander Farrelly as president.
Their document was presented to the public in a referendum on March 6, 1979, and was rejected by the voters. Among its provisions: a 17-member Legislature; a native-born governor; a revised judicial system with a local supreme court replacing the U.S. District Court; local "administrative districts" with mayors and assemblies; an elected comptroller general; protection of "V.I. culture, language, traditions or customs"; and all beaches and shoreline to be "public."
Fewer than 38 percent of eligible voters turned out, and 56 percent of those who voted rejected the document. Controversy over areas on local government and the native-born governor clause were put forth as chief reasons for rejection.
Farrelly, quoted on Jan. 3, 1978, when the session was two months into its work, saw the "St. Thomas vs. St. Croix split" as the one issue permeating nearly every debate.
The delegates to this convention were: Ann Abramson, Adelbert Anduze, Louis J. Boschulte, Mavis Brady (secretary), Adelbert Bryan, Clarice Bryan (second vice president, Edith Quetel Bryan, Annie M. Hodge Callwood, Clifford Christian, Alphonso Christian, Clemente Cintron Jr., Vincen Clendinen Sr., Darwin Creque, Octave A. David, Hugo Dennis, Hilda Bastian England, Alexander A. Farrelly, Kwame Garcia, Arnold Golden, Geraldo Guirty, William Harvey, James O'Neal Henderson, Roger Hill, Gerald E. Hodge Sr., Walter Hodge, Edgar Iles, James Isherwood, Randall James, Wilfrid James, Rudolph Krigger, Wilbur La Motta, Bent Lawaetz, Sidney Lee, Alfred H. Lockhart, Juan F. Luis, John Maduro, Alva McFarlane (first vice president), Jessica Tutein Moolenaar, Lucien Moolenaar II, Theovald E. Moorehead, Robert Moss, Edgar Mullgrav, Douglas Nesbitt, George O'Reilly Jr., Michael Paiewonsky, Wallace Phaire, Eulalie Costella Rohlsen Rivera, Elmo D. Roebuck, Orandrewnilla McPherson Roebuck, Henry E. Rohlsen, Rupert Ross Jr., Ernest Schulterbrandt, Ruby Simmonds, Elma Davis Smith, Thyra Hodge Smith, Gilbert A. Sprauve, Charles W. Turnbull, Mario A. Watlington, Leona B. Watson and Lloyd L. Williams.
The fourth Constitutional Convention brought 30 elected delegates together on March 4, 1980. The group selected Rupert Ross as president. Several members had been members of the third Convention, and a select few were veterans of the first and second Conventions also. On Nov. 3, 1980, a proposed document was presented to the voters and, once more, was rejected. Defining the term "Virgin Islander" and the importance of it in text was said to be a stumbling block to passage.
Delegates were: Toya Andrew (assistant secretary), Ruth H. Beagles, Cecil Benjamin, Clarice Bryan, Dorene E. Carter, Otis Felix, Henry Feuerzeig, Kwame Garcia, Cyprian Gardine, Rufus Graham, Geraldo Guirty, Olaf Hendricks, Stedman Hodge, John James, Wilfred James, Bent Lawaetz, (secretary), Sidney Lee, Lucien Moolenaar, Alva McFarlane, Rupert W. Ross Jr. (president), Thyra Hodge Smith, Clement Sackey (2nd vice president), Llewellyn Sewer, (sergeant at arms), Ruby Simmonds (1st vice president), Yvonne Tharpes, Charles Turnbull, Mario Watlington.
In general, delegates avoided intermingling questions of status with their constitutional products, feeling that status was a separate issue. A Status Commission had been active within the government at intervals over some of the same decades.
Why a constitution in preference to an organic act? A teaching text written by Ruth Moolenaar, cited below, delineates several reasons:
- A constitution is written by delegates elected by the people who will live under the constitution; organic acts were written by a small number of people with little, if any, input from the affected public.
- A constitutional convention strengthens the principle of "government of the people and by the people" by providing public hearings to allow opinions to be expressed.
- Final approval of a constitution rests with the voting public; approval of the Organic Act lay with Congress.
- The people have the power to amend a constitution whenever the need and will arises.
Antecedents of Virgin Islands law go far back in history, as the islands were under Danish governance for two and a half centuries and the populace had a body of expressed and implied law and custom which governed them. This is unlike any of the 50 states, which were created or annexed into political being by the "colonies" and later the United States.
The definitive source for persons who wish to know Virgin Island law antecedents is the 1992 University of the Virgin Islands publication edited by Paul Leary, "Major Political & Constitutional Documents of the United States Virgin Islands 1671-1991." The work begins with the first charter of the Danish West India Company in 1671 and ends with a V.I. Legislature Act passed in 1991, just before publication, concerning changed dates for a referendum on status. A number of Danish law items were cited in the first Virgin Islands Code, Harold Lutchman wrote in a preface to Leary's publication.
The current proposal, sponsored by all 10 majority senators, calls for a convention of 30 delegates to be elected next February. Voters would elect 13 delegates in each district, with at least two for St. Thomas-St. John to be St. John residents, and would elect the other four delegates territorywide.
Their mandate would be to produce a draft constitution between March 22 and July 27, 2004. It would be forwarded for approval to the governor, the president of the United States and Congress; after that, if approved on all levels, it would be put to the voters.
At a Senate Government Operations Committee hearing on May 7, Delegate Donna M. Christensen and Edward Phillips, parliamentarian for the Association of Concerned Native Virgin Islanders, suggested that the territory adopt the 1954 Revised Organic Act as its constitution with the provision that the territory could then amend it. Christensen said this procedure would avoid the gridlock that occurred in previous attempts to forge an original constitution.
The bill is undergoing revisions in the Government Operations Committee.
Only one individual has been a delegate to all four conventions to date: Charles W. Turnbull. Three persons took part in three of the conventions: Clarice Bryan (the first, third and fourth), John L. Maduro (the first, second and third) and Sidney Lee (the second, third and fourth).
References: The following works, which provided information for the above article, may be of interest to persons wishing more information about the process and the history. All are available in the public and university libraries of the Virgin Islands.
Compilation of primary sources:
- "Major Political & Constitutional Documents of the United States Virgin Islands 1671-1991" / edited by Paul M. Leary. St. Thomas: University of the Virgin Islands, ©1992.
- "America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs" / William W. Boyer. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, ©1983.
- "Constitutional Tug-of-War: / by Alexander A. Farrelly. In the Daily News, 50th Anniversary Edition, Aug. 1, 1980. St. Thomas, 1980.
- "Proceedings: Conference on Recent Developments in United States-Offshore Areas Relations " / edited by Paul M. Leary. St. Thomas: College of the Virgin Islands.
- "The Rocky Road to Self-Government?" / by Julio A. Brady. In the Daily News, 50th Anniversary Edition, Aug. 1, 1980. St. Thomas, 1980.
- "A Study of the Virgin Islands Proposed Constitution: Teacher's Text" / prepared by Project Introspection, Department of Education; writer: Ruth Moolenaar. St. Thomas, Department of Education, ©1981.
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