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Wednesday, September 28, 2022
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Congress Sends V.I. Constitution Back to Delegates

The U.S. Congress passed a resolution Tuesday reconvening the 5th V.I. Constitutional Convention, and urging, but not requiring, it to "correct provisions inconsistent with the Constitution and federal law," starting deliberations on territorial constitutional provisions anew.
Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the resolution in the Senate, which passed in May, while the House of Representatives passed its version Tuesday.
The U.S. Interior Department has agreed to fund the reconvened convention, Delegate Donna Christensen said Tuesday afternoon in a conference call with reporters.
"One of the biggest problems they [delegates] faced in the entire process was funding," Christensen said. "At times they had to scour around just to have a place to meet. I went to Sen. Bingaman and said we can’t send it back without funding, so both of us agreed to approach Interior, and Interior agreed to help."
She urged convention delegates to contact Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs about their needs.
The Constitutional Convention completed the draft constitution last year. Gov. John deJongh Jr. initially declined to forward the document to President Barack Obama, citing constitutional issues and other problems with several passages. In December, the V.I. Superior Court concluded deJongh did not have the power to withhold the document and ordered him to forward the draft.
Since then, Obama forwarded it to Congress, along with a Department of Justice analysis raising questions about maritime boundaries, tax breaks aimed at native Virgin Islanders and other provisions.
After Tuesday’s vote, Christensen said in a statement her position on how to proceed with the constitution has evolved over the past few months as she has listened to testimony and arguments from delegates and others.
"My initial position was that we as a Congress should exercise our authority and amend it before sending the document back to the people of the Virgin Islands to vote on," she said. "I still feel strongly that the people at home are entitled to and deserve a constitutionally sound document upon which to come out and cast their vote."
But after hearing various views, Christensen said she now believes the people of the territory should be the ones to make any changes or decisions on questions of self-governance.
Asked if the draft constitution needed to be amended, Christensen said yes.
"The authorizing legislation clearly states the constitution must be written in concert with the Constitution of the United States and with federal law and, because the document does not comport with that, some modification ought to be done to the language," she said. "How far they need to go … would be up to them to work out with their attorneys."
Fifth Constitutional Convention President Gerard "Luz" James II hailed the news that the convention would reconvene, saying the establishment of a constitution was more important than any disagreements over particular provisions.
"Yes there are things not everyone may like or agree on," James said. "But the good thing about laws and constitutions is they can be amended. … Just recently, December I believe, the Grenadines passed amendments to their constitution."
In her statement, Christensen also said the constitution itself was more important than differences over its specifics and urged residents not to be overly concerned about controversial provisions.
"Any provision that is unconstitutional would not stand and therefore no one need fear that any rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution would in any way be abridged," she said.
James said Tuesday the question of defining ancestral Virgin Islanders should not be controversial because the definitions were derived from the wording used in U.S. treaties and acts concerning the territory.
"We did not make that up," he said. "The language … came from the treaty in 1917 when Denmark sold the islands to the United States," he said. "
Christensen said her concern was not with the definition, but with unconstitutional privileges attached to the definition.
"I do believe that although the definitions of native and ancestral could be included to follow the dictates of the authorizing act, any rights and privileges ascribed to them would need to be amended in the reconvening of the Convention," she said.
While Congress has set no time limit, Christensen said it was conceivable a revised document could be ready by October, allowing a referendum on the constitution this November. Asked if that was likely, James said he personally would focus more on being thorough than on speed.
"But remember, I am only one-30th part of the convention, and what happens will be what the delegates decide through the voting process."
Under this new Congressional mandate, once the convention produces a document, the U.S. president will have 60 days to review and comment on the new document, after which it will go for an up or down vote in a territory-wide referendum.

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