The Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention will get the free use of legislative chambers throughout the territory and guidance from five appointed attorneys and must produce a final, legally sufficient document by Oct. 31, if legislation passed by the Senate Tuesday is signed into law.
The bill was proposed by Sen. Ronald Russell on Tuesday as a substitute for a related measure from Russell that initially envisioned the Senate taking a more active role in the process. The ultimate goal is to amend an existing draft constitution so it conforms to the U.S. Constitution and federal law before submitting it to the territory's voters for approval. If the Halloween deadline is not met, the current constitutional process will be deemed dead.
The Constitutional Convention completed the draft constitution in 2009. Gov. John deJongh Jr. initially declined to forward the document to President Barack Obama, citing constitutional and other problems with several passages.
In December the V.I. Superior Court concluded deJongh did not have the latitude to decide whether or not to send the document on 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. The most controversial sections said only native born Virgin Islanders can run for governor or lieutenant governor and that “ancestral virgin islanders” (those who had family in the territory in or prior to 1932) would be exempt from property tax.
In 2010, the U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution calling for the Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention to reconvene and change its draft constitution to address concerns raised by the U.S Department of Justice. The Department of the Interior has promised some funding for the process, but not as much as some on the convention want. The Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention has declined to act at all over the past two years.
Russell's substitute bill reconvenes the elected convention as the “Revision Convention,” and establishes a quorum requirement of 21 of the 30 elected delegates. A panel of five attorneys would give legal advice, including the Legislature's chief legal counsel, a V.I. Bar Association appointee, an attorney appointed by the governor, one appointed by the chief justice of the V.I. Supreme Court and one appointed by the Legislature.
Sen. Usie Richards argued against the bill, saying it was “thoroughly flawed … by the concept that if you finished law school you are more qualified,” and that the “elected delegates are now being supplanted by professionals.”
Sen. Louis Patrick Hill said Richards had a point, “but I totally disagree.”He said, “The fact of the matter is they are not being supplanted but guided,” concluding that “in the final analysis, they are the ones who are going to vote, not the legal advisors.”
Voting for the bill were Hill, Russell, Sens. Carlton “Ital” Dowe, Neville James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Sammuel Sanes, Alvin Williams and Janette Millin-Young. Voting nay were Richards, Sens. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O'Reilly, Patrick Simeon Sprauve and Celestino White. Sen. Craig Barshinger was absent.