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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, December 9, 2023
HomeCommentaryOpen forumOpen forum: Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Open forum: Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

United States of America flag. U.S. Virgin Islands flag (Source file)

None of us has a crystal ball. We have the ability to avoid pitfalls of the past and shape our destiny. Thus, mindful that there have been five previous constitutional conventions and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) is still being governed by a de facto constitution known as the Revised Organic Act of 1954 (ROA), it is now time for us, the people of the USVI, to work collaboratively with the V.I. Legislature to ensure that the 6th Constitutional Convention is properly established.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. The 34th Legislature is proposing that the 6th Constitutional Convention be established by 2023 since the 5th Constitutional Convention failed to produce a proposed constitution that was acceptable to Congress.  In 2010, Congress returned the draft document for revisions, but the convention never addressed the reasons for the rejection of the proposed constitution. Hence, the 5th Constitutional Convention became defunct, and the document it created was presumed to be invalid.

About a decade after the demise of the 5th Constitutional Convention, a referendum was held and the VI electorate sent a message to the Legislature. However, no member of the 34th Legislature ever made reference to the referendum until recently. The Legislature now has a proposed legislation entitled Bill No. 34-0153, and in this draft document the purpose for establishing a new convention is stated: “WHEREAS, in the November 3, 2020, non-binding referendum, the VI electorate voted in favor of the Legislature establishing the Sixth Constitutional Convention to adopt the Revised Organic Act or portions of it as the Constitution.” Isn’t it crystal clear that the people of the Virgin Islands wish for a new convention to adopt the ROA or portions of it?

Moreover, Public Law 94-584, enacted by Congress on Oct. 21, 1976, provides for the establishment of constitutions that must “deal with the subject matter of those provisions of the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands of 1954, as amended…provide for a system of local courts consistent with the provisions of the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands…”

The Act does not contain a requirement for a preamble or a definition of a Virgin Islander. It does not prohibit a convention from adopting the ROA. Why not adopt the entire ROA with an amendment clause and submit this document as a proposed constitution to Congress?  Why risk another rejection by Congress if the ROA is modified to the point that it becomes unrecognizable?

Interestingly, there is opposition to Bill No. 0153 based on the false claim that the ROA cannot be adopted by a convention nor can it be amended after Congress approves it as a proposed constitution. What exactly do the opponents hope to accomplish by spreading misinformation and myths about constitutional development?

Please be informed that the ROA has governed us for 67 years, but it has not retained its original form. In actuality, the ROA is a revision of the Organic Act of 1936. Both Rothschild Francis and D. Hamilton Jackson had an influential role in the drafting of the Organic Act of 1936. Once this document was revised, it developed into the ROA which has been amended several times by Congress. Although none of the past conventions has amended the ROA, the 1st Constitutional Convention in 1965 inspired these reforms: elected governor, elected Congressional representative and the right to propose Organic Act amendments.

Unfortunately, the V.I electorate rejected the proposed constitutions that were drafted by the 3rd Constitutional Convention in 1979 and the 4th Constitutional Convention in 1980. Why didn’t the 5th Constitutional Convention not learn from the mistakes of the previous conventions? Did any convention delegate consider how Puerto Ricans easily created and ratified their own constitution?

Puerto Rico like the USVI is an unincorporated territory of the United States. In 1952, the electorate of Puerto Rico ratified a constitution. Subsequently, they approved amendments to the constitution in 1960, 1961, 1964 and 1970. Their constitution recognizes the sovereignty of America, contains a bill of rights and is consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

Persons born in any US territory, except for American Samoa, are legally defined as natural born U.S.  citizens and may be eligible to run for U.S. president. This right should be one of the amendments to the bill of right that presently exists in the ROA. There is no doubt that the V.I. electorate would approve any amendment that doesn’t abridge the rights of U.S. citizens residing in the USVI. A proposed constitution for the USVI must get approval from Congress before it’s presented to the voters. Shouldn’t [it] be inclusive?

It’s time for the people of the Virgin Islands to get involved in the process of developing our own constitution. If not now, when? If not us, who? Once Congress approves the adopted ROA, it can be amended. The final step in us acquiring our own constitution is to ratify it. We, the people of the USVI, would have no reason to reject a constitution that we helped to create ourselves!


Verdel L. Petersen, St. Croix

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