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Constitutional convention in U.S. Virgin Islands to convene in October in fifth attempt to approve a constitution

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U.S. Virgin Islands Superior Court Judge James Carroll III cleared the way for the opening of a Constitutional Convention following resolution of a delegate election challenge that delayed the July start of the convention.  The fifth attempt to adopt a constitution for the territory was scheduled to convene in July but had been delayed by Judge Carroll in order to resolve the seating of delegate Harry Daniels.  A confusing legislative directive specifying the apportionment of seats between St. Thomas and St. John gave rise to litigation by Daniels in July.  Judge Carroll, in granting mandamus relief to Daniels, ruled, "the delegates who participate in the Fifth Constitutional Convention may well be known to future generations as the "founding Fathers" of the Virgin Islands." 

Four prior attempts, the first in 1965, have failed to secure a constitution for America's resort colony.  In 1965, the convention delegates sent to Congress for approval a draft constitution that called for voting rights in Presidential elections and membership in the House of Representatives.  Congress took no action on the matter and following conventions in 1972, 1978, and 1980 failed to gain sufficient public support to go forward.


The current convention delegates are expected to again sidestep the controversial central issue, the lack of voting rights in federal elections, because of a hostile climate in Congress.  To avoid repeating prior outcomes, several educational efforts are in planning or underway to educate the residents of the Virgin Islands on the importance of a constitution.   The recent failure in the U.S. Senate by residents of the District of Columbia to advance a bill granting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that citizens residing in Virgin Islands would also meet with resistance against a constitution that granted similar voting rights.


October 10th is the new scheduled opening date for the Constitutional Convention and the thirty delegates will have until next year to complete their work.  The failed draft document of the Fourth Constitutional Convention in 1980 will be a starting point for the new effort.

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Earlier this year, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the "enduring vitality" of the infamous Insular Cases and denied a voting rights appeal for U.S. citizens residing in the Virgin Islands.  The Insular Cases were Supreme Court decisions in the early 20th Century that limited provisions of the U.S. Constitution from applying to the island colony of Puerto Rico and have since been relied upon to suppress voting rights in U.S. territories.


The U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark during World War I for $25 million and are under the exclusive control of Congress.  Presently, Congress permits the island residents to send a non-voting "delegate" to Washington but denies citizens residing in the Virgin Islands effective representation.


The U.S. Virgin Islands are one of 17 "Non Self Governing Territories" subject to Article 73 of the United Nations Charter.  Article 73 binds the United States "to take due account the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions."

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In 2001, at the request of the U.S. District Court in the Virgin Islands, the prestigious Schell Center of Yale University provided an amicus brief addressing the voting rights issue.


"Someday our nation will look back on its treatment of the Virgin Islands and other non-governing territories with the shame with which we now look at slavery and segregation.  When the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, colonialism was expected of world powers, racist ideology was accepted as scientific truth, and racial apartheid was common."


"The present governmental structure of the Virgin Islands was established by the U.S. Congress without the consent or meaningful participation of the residents of the Virgin Islands.  At no point have the people of the Virgin Islands been able to independently and effectively to exercise their right of self-determination."


 11th in a series on 21st Century American Colonies 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.


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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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