Though five failed attempts precede it, the Government Operations and Consumer Affairs Committee forwarded legislation Wednesday in hopes of establishing a Sixth Constitutional Convention of the Virgin Islands for the purpose of drafting a U.S. Virgin Islands Constitution.
“Yes, we have had five failed conventions. But to learn from the past failures is to embrace the complexity,” said non-committee member Sen. Janelle Sarauw, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Genevieve Whitaker.
The last attempt Virgin Islanders took at writing their own constitution was nearly ten years ago in 2012, with the largest push towards the effort happening predominantly in the 70s — 1965, 1972, 1978 and 1980. Should the legislation be signed into law, it stipulates the Constitutional Convention would be required to draft a proposed constitution by the end of October 2023, and if the constitution is adopted it would be enacted on March 31, 2025.
While the endeavor has been marred over the years by the failed attempts, Virgin Islanders have not changed their minds about wanting a constitution specific to the territory – the legislation itself reading “that the people of the Virgin Islands continue to favor a constitution for the territory as a significant step forward in internal self-government.”
Upon adoption of the law, the convention would have both the duty and authority to draft and finalize a proposed Constitution of the Virgin Islands and if accepted by Congress, put to rest a decades-old undertaking. But they don’t have to do it all from scratch.
The bill dictates the ability to “use, revise, modify, substitute, or delete parts” of both the Revised Organic Act of 1954 and the 5th Constitutional Convention draft document.
University of the Virgin Islands professor Malik Sekou, like other testifiers, were in full support of adopting components (if not all) of the Revised Organic Act of 1954 calling it “low hanging fruit” instead of the alternate “high hanging fruit” of declaring a “political status.” The status question relates to whether the USVI remains a territory outside the customs border of the United States, becomes a state, becomes an independent nation, or chooses some other path.
“The high-hanging fruit is much more conflictual and complicated. It hangs on treacherous limbs, and we can fall off the branches if we are not careful. We will need five years of sustained public education for a meaningful political status vote and decision,” Sekou said. “Bill 34-0153 gives us the ability to pick that low-hanging fruit by 2024 and make history.”
Sekou compared the territory’s journey ratifying a constitution to the streets lining the island of St. Thomas.
“They are winding, narrow at times, filled with potholes and detours into dirt roads,” Sekou said. “I urge you to avoid the potholes and dirt roads and stay on the smooth, straight highways. The adoption of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, as amended, is the smooth highway. It is like this recently improved highway in front of the Ron de Lugo Building to the east of the Legislature.”
As the bill is written, it is intended to do just that – take the “smooth highway” – rendering the territory’s declaration of a political status a different debate for another time. Sarauw said not having a declared political status does not prevent the territory from having a constitution.
The Committee also advanced two additional pieces of legislation, Bill Nos. 34-0182 and 34-0090, alongside three resolutions. Bill No. 34-0182, if passed, would absolve the University of the Virgin Islands from the requirement of obtaining legislative approval before naming university property. Bill No. 34-0090, sponsored by Sens. Milton Potter, said if the legislation is passed it would “correct a grave wrong” and allow for all peace officers to participate in the Career Incentive Program.
Sens. Carla Joseph, Novelle Francis Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Franklin Johnson, Javan James Sr., and Potter were present for the hearing. Sen. Marvin Blyden was absent.