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HomeNewsArchivesStructure of Legislature, 'Native' Questions Dominate Constitutional Session

Structure of Legislature, 'Native' Questions Dominate Constitutional Session

Oct. 13, 2008 — The 5th Constitutional Convention on Monday debated the pros and cons of different ways of constructing the Legislature and how to word definitions of V.I. legal residents, natives and ancestral or native Virgin Islanders, ultimately sending draft language back to the committees for more work.
In the draft language, an ancestral native Virgin Islander is a person born or living in the territory before 1927, the date U.S. citizenship was first conferred on people living in the territory, as well as any direct descendants of someone who meets that criteria. A native Virgin Islander is defined as anyone born in the territory after 1927, plus anyone who is "a descendant of at least one parent who was born in the Virgin Islands after 1927." A simple "Virgin Islander" is defined as a U.S. citizen who has resided in the Virgin Islands for at least five years.
The 1927 date and other dates in the definitions are derived from the federal 1940 Nationality Act, which defines who is and who is not a U.S. citizen. Their use in the definition serves to emphasize that while the U.S. took possession of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917, the U.S. did not confer citizenship on most of its inhabitants for another decade. On the advice of convention legal counsel Lloyd Jordan, the draft constitutional language closely follows the wording of U.S. law and refers to the specific sections of code, providing a legal rationale for different categories of citizenship by referring to the way U.S. law has previously created different classes of citizenship in the territory.
Gerard Luz James III, the convention president, emphasized the importance of the connection between the U.S. code and the way the constitution defines an "ancestral" Virgin Islander.
The code "does not identify anyone born in the U.S. Virgin Islands as Americans," James said, holding up a copy of the law. "It says we are U.S. citizens. When I was in the Army, I was called American for the purpose of serving, but they didn't consider me as being from the U.S., really."
Some wanted the definition more inclusive. Delegate Frank Jackson brought up the Lawaetzes and the Merwins, families that moved to St. Croix around the end of the 19th century from Denmark and New York, respectively, asking why they shouldn't be considered "ancestral Virgin Islanders."
"But the document says 'and are not citizens of any other country,'" replied delegate Kendall Petersen. To Petersen, the crucial difference is that a Lawaetz or Merwin in, say, 1925, was a Danish or U.S. citizen, while those of African descent were citizens of no country.
Delegate Adelbert Bryan was less technical in his assessment, walking to the back of the Fritz Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room and pulling the plaque commemorating Lawaetz from the wall.
"Fritz didn't do anything for black people," Bryan said. "We keep changing it because of the media. … Nobody can convince me Mr. Lawaetz was a native Virgin Islander."
James and others expressed concern the section may need to be simplified.
With 19 delegates in attendance at the peak, the convention fell short of its quorum of 21 delegates. So after initial discussions, delegates held two committee meetings for which there were quorums.
Kendall Petersen's committee on Citizenship and V.I. Rights voted by acclamation to return the language to committee for more work.
There was extensive, spirited debate about the pros and cons of various ways to put together the Legislature, in which the delegates hashed out some of the surprisingly intricate issues involved.
Delegate Eugene "Doc" Petersen proposed an initial 15-member legislature, then tying the number and apportionment of representatives to the U.S. Census, as in U.S. states. Petersen would have six at-large representatives, three residing in each district, who would run territory-wide. The remaining nine would run as residents and representatives of nine districts: four each on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and one on St. John. The system balances the principle of one person, one vote; the desire for a representative specifically dedicated to St. John; the desire for district and local representation; and the desire for at-large representatives who have to answer to the entire territory and not just their home island.
Much of the discussion revolved around working out the full meaning and all the implications of the plan. Several questions produced heated debate but no firm answers.
A consensus gradually emerged that the plan needed to be simplified, and Petersen said he would bring it back to his committee for reworking. The 5th Constitutional Convention is to meet again Tuesday in Frederiksted, weather permitting.
Present at Monday's meeting were James, Bryan, Rena Brodhurst, Jackson, Mary Moorhead, Claire Roker, Kendall Petersen, Alecia Wells, Arnold Golden, Marion A. Francis, Lawrence Sewer, Elsie Thomas-Trotman, Lois Hassell-Habtes, Eugene "Doc" Petersen, Gerard Emanuel, Myron Jackson, Thomas Moore and Lisa Williams.
Absent were Douglas Brady, Violet Anne Golden, Douglas Capdeville, Wilma Marsh Monsanto, Richard Schrader, Charles Turnbull, Arturo Watlington Jr. and Stedmann Hodge Jr.
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