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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, May 26, 2024
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Constitutional Issues Dominate Second Half of Court Conference

Continuing to push for the right to vote for president might deprive V.I. residents of some other unique financial and tax benefits not afforded to citizens on the mainland. That’s according to participants attending this week’s 1st U.S. District Court conference on St. Thomas.
For years, residents have said the territories are being treated like "second-class" citizens by the U.S. government and should be given the same kind of voting rights and congressional representation as those living in the states.
But there was a different picture painted Tuesday, as a group of about 300 lawmakers, judges, attorneys and other judicial representatives debated the issue, and questioned whether successfully lobbying Congress on these two issues would result in a tradeoff, with the U.S. Virgin Islands being treated more like a state and losing some of the independence that comes along with being an unincorporated territory.
Of course, there were still those who spoke in favor of the territories’ having full constitutional rights. One attorney from Puerto Rico even said that he has been considering filing a class-action suit to compel Congress to extend full constitutional benefits to the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands.
"We are, for all intents and purposes, second-class citizens, and in the Constitution, there’s no such thing," he said.
But for the most part, V.I. attorneys who stepped up to the microphone said it might be better to "leave well enough alone."
"We can’t examine this issue in a vacuum," said attorney Gerald Groner. "But perhaps some of the benefits we have now might have to fall by the wayside, and that may be something we might not want to give up."
Specifically, the territory retains its income tax collections, which local attorney Mark Hodge said goes straight into the government’s coffers. We’re already in debt, and if that money is forfeited, the debt would be even larger, Hodge said.
Several of the afternoon’s panelists — assembled to share their expertise on the topic and to facilitate discussion with the audience — said Congress might not buy the argument, but instead decide the territories have the right to resolve these issues by determining their status and the rights of their citizens through a constitution.
Further, Congress would have to see that the issue of status is one of extreme importance to the territory, said Terence A. Todman, a conference panelist and former U.S. ambassador to Chad, Guinea, Costa Rica, Spain and Denmark, among others.
"There was a referendum in 1993, where I believe 27 percent of the populace voted," he said. "So you can see how critical an issue this is to the Virgin Islands. I think it’s hard to convince others if you can’t get a sense of what this issue means to Virgin Islanders."
Much of the debate surrounding the local constitutional conventions has revolved around native rights. But the territory isn’t the only one with that particular problem, according to Frances Marie Tydingco-Gatewood, chief judge of the District Court of Guam.
"Whenever this comes up, the issue of who was a native inhabitant would take place in all of our discussions," she said, eliciting a loud round of laughter from the audience. In contrast to the U.S. Virgin Islands, however, Guam’s efforts at self-determination have boasted a high voter turnout, with a majority of voters opting for commonwealth in the most recent referendum in the 1980s. Despite the vote, Guam is still considered an unincorporated territory and currently does not have a constitution.
"We really haven’t had that many challenges on that level as others have had, but I think the issue is coming to a head now," Tydingco-Gatewood said.
All panelists agreed that a person’s constitutional rights should not diminish when they move from the mainland to an American territory, and Todman said certain political developments — such as the election of Puerto Rican-born Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and a growing level of displeasure with the electoral college — should change the national outlook on such issues.
Meanwhile, there is a bill pending in Congress authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to assist the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa with setting up a political status public education program, panelists said.

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