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Judge delays Constitutional Convention in U.S. Virgin Islands; 9th in a 21st Century American Colonies series

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Superior Court Judge James Carroll III has ordered a delay to the fifth attempt in the U.S. Virgin Islands to adopt a constitution for the islands.  A mandated Constitutional Convention was to convene in July to consider proposing a constitution to Congress, which controls the colony, officially called an "unincorporated territory." 

"The Court finds that the people of the Virgin Islands have a fundamental right to have the important work of the Constitutional Convention performed by the delegates whom they duly elected to serve in that capacity.  Thus the public interest will not be adversely affected--and in fact will be best served--by granting a temporary restraining order until the question regarding the election results is resolved." 

A disputed ballot change made to conform to a vaguely worded statute that imposed a limit on delegates from the island of St. John is at the heart of candidate Harry Daniel's lawsuit seeking to be named a delegate or granted a new election.

 

Judge Carroll conducted a nine-hour hearing but was unable to render a decision prior to the scheduled start of the Constitutional Convention and thus issued the order delaying the convening of the convention.  The thirty delegates have 12 months to complete the work of the convention so a delay is not critical to the statutory deadline.

 

Ironically, the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens residing in the Virgin Islands are at the heart of a failure of the four previous attempts to draft a constitution.  In 1965, the first Constitutional Convention sent to Congress a document calling for voting rights in Presidential elections and membership in the House of Representatives.  Congress took no action and the draft constitution died.

 

In 1972, a second attempt to develop a constitution was made but lacked authorization by Congress and could not muster enough public support to submit a draft to Congress.  In 1976, permission for a convention was granted by Congress, but with a limited scope.  The third Constitutional Convention was held in 1978 but rejected by island voters the following year.

 

The fourth Constitutional Convention was held in 1980 but failure to resolve the lack of a federal vote for citizens in the territory again cost the proposal its public support.  Like an elephant in the room everyone ignores, the issue of federal voting rights is the hidden secret behind much of the difficulty the U.S. Virgin Islands have had in adopting a constitution.

 

The delay caused by Judge Carroll's order will give delegates time to consider a VICTORY policy proposal being circulated in the islands.  The Virgin Islands Constitutional Training and Ongoing Resources Institute is a collaborative effort between a Virgin Islands consulting firm and Stanford University's Constitutional Law Center.  The goal of VICTORY is to provide training to delegates on constitutional law and conduct deliberative polling to provide input from an informed public.

 

VICTORY architect Jabriel Ballentine explains that Virgin Islanders "are filled with hope as our Territory approaches another historical attempt to create and ratify our own constitution….we recognize that being free was not always our reality and that a constitution is a symbolic step toward honoring our past and solidifying our future freedom."

 

Derek Shaffer, Executive Director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, comments, "It is impossible to overstate how excited we are to embark together upon this endeavor.  It is truly historic.  Never before has a delegation set out to craft a constitution while educating itself alongside members of the general public, to that all concerned can be advised in the premises at the outset and then throughout the relevant deliberations."

 

As interest in the VICTORY proposal grows with delegates-elect, the inevitable inside joke that Stanford should also help Congress is making the rounds.  Meanwhile, Judge Carroll is expected to issue a decision on the delegate election in mid-August.

 21st Century American Colonies is a series of articles that explore the acquisition, control, and status of modern-day colonies of the United States.  Although the colonies are now called "unincorporated territories" the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship of residents of the territories continues to define the colonial status.  Permission granted to reprint.

 

Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.
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