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Convention Delegates Hash Out Draft Language

Aug. 21, 2008 — Following two hours of arguments and roll calls to satisfy unanticipated motions, delegates to the Fifth Constitutional Convention on Thursday finally dug into a daylong plenary session agenda, the first of two. They meet again Friday to review draft language put forward by the convention's 12 committees ahead of an October deadline to complete a proposed Virgin Islands constitution.
Four committee drafts came under scrutiny Thursday. Issues of church and state, native rights, citizenship, terms limits and qualifications of elected officials occupied a great deal of discussion among the delegates, 25 of whom answered the morning's roll call, or arrived soon after. Thirty delegates make up the convention.
Before the review started, arguments ensued over language used in the agenda to characterize the day's goal as well as the integrity, or lack thereof, of earlier plenary session minutes, prompting a roll call on whether or not to read the minutes aloud.
"Is there anything in our rules that allows you the president to strike something as not germane and scandalous?" asked Delegate Douglas Capdeville, exasperated by the debate over the minutes.
In addition, confusion over the status of a request to the Legislature to extend the convention's October deadline elicited a correction from newly hired legal counsel that the convention's deadline was Oct. 6 and not Oct. 1, as thought.
With Friday being the penultimate full legislative session before the deadline, Convention Treasurer Mario A. Francis told the Source he needs to find a senator willing to sponsor the request.
"I've lobbied a few of the senators requesting that," Francis said. "I would have to run outside during the course of this meeting (to contact them), hoping they could bring it up tomorrow."
Religion and Cultural References
Convention President Gerard Luz James II, clearly frustrated at the bickering that dominated the morning, called for a lunch break. Upon returning, delegates worked tirelessly debating concepts, ways to express them and calling on newly hired legal counsel for guidance. Lois Hassell-Habtes, chair of the Preamble/Anthems/Symbols/Bill of Rights/Human Rights Committee, began the presentations with a reading of her committee's proposed constitutional preamble.
Delegate Mary Moorhead wondered whether its references to "Almighty God" violated the separation of church and state. Delegate Charles Turnbull, waving a book on state constitutions, said 49 of them include god in their constitution and the Virgin Islands should be no different.
"That is part of our culture," Turnbull said. "A lot of people want to re-write our culture, but almighty God is part of our culture in the Virgin Islands, as we all know."
But what about ascribing a gender to god? "Not all of us believe god is a man, and I would like to scratch the word 'his,'" said Delegate Kendall Petersen.
The preamble's inclusion of the word multicultural to describe the territory prompted objections from Delegate Adelbert Bryan. "This is not a multicultural community," he said. "This is an African population community."
Convention Secretary Gerard Emanuel didn't disagree, but pointed out, "Africa is composed of many societies, so it's still multicultural."
Also included in the committee's draft is language that states, "There will be no same sex marriage." The wording prompted objections, but not the concept itself.
Who is a Virgin Islander?
One of the most controversial questions raised by the convention has been defining a Virgin Islander. Under language presented Thursday by Petersen, chair of the Citizenship/Virgin Islands' Rights/Environment/Cultural Preservation/Historical Committee, Virgin Islanders are divided into three categories: native, Virgin Islander, and Virgin Islands citizen. The first refers to those able to trace their ancestry to before 1927; the second entails simply having been born here, or being the child of someone who was; and the last is contingent upon a minimum of five years' residency here.
"My kids are second-class citizens, and I am a third-class citizen," Delegate Douglas Brady told his colleagues, adding he had "no problem, whatsoever" with his ranking. However, he cautioned that this kind of language could threaten the very people who must ultimately vote their approval for the document.
"Let's not pretend we're engaging in a moral exercise," he said. "This is a political process, and if we want this political process to succeed, we're putting it at risk."
Delegate Wilma Marsh Monsanto wanted to know what documentation the territory would rely upon to distinguish its residents, and, "What does it profit me to proclaim that I am a native Virgin Islander?"
"The churches that enslave us have the records of everybody they enslaved," Petersen said. "Every island in the Caribbean and in the world, where a country have a name, they have a benefit for the people for being a part of that country."
According to attorney Lisa Moorhead, who is one of three attorneys hired to assist in the drafting process, while a constitution can attempt to define groups it should not explain what rights belong to them.
"When you do it in a constitution, it's going to be challenged," she said. "It's done through legislation so it can be properly explained."
She went on to caution the delegates that their draft language is just that — a draft.
"The delegates need to start wrapping their minds around the fact that when you get the language back, it may look nothing like the language you're presenting," Moorhead said.
Judicial and Executive Branch Debate
Capdeville, chair of the Judicial Committee, made a succinct presentation outlining proposed changes in judicial terms and qualifications and decrying the suggestion that judges be elected.
"The community is, in my opinion and in the opinion of the committee, too small to have elected judges," said Capdeville. "We want to get away from a popularity contest." He said communities on the mainland that use that system are now trying to figure out how to rid themselves of it, given the conflict of interest arising out of campaign donations.
As well-prepared as Capdeville's document was, his colleague, chair of the Executive Committee, had a different story as he presented his document to the convention.
"There are some stuff in it that makes absolutely no sense because it is a working draft," said Michael Thurland. "We have not agreed on anything, because of lack of quorum. We just can't meet to get some stuff formalized."
Among the issues debated as delegates made their way through the partially formed draft was whether to have the lieutenant governor elected separately from the governor, what their respective term limits should be and whether a former governor can later be elected lieutenant governor. In addition, there was considerable debate over a reference to emergency powers of the governor, as well as to the mention of a "militia."
"Who is considered the militia in the Virgin Islands?" queried Bryan.
One-and-a-half hours later, and only halfway through discussion of Thurland's draft, the convention convened as the doors to the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Center were being locked for the night — two hours past the agenda's stated end of the session.
The five delegates counted as absent when the day started were: Rena Broadhurst, Eugene Petersen, Richard Scharader Jr., Arnold and Violet Anne Golden. Ms. Golden showed up at the end of the day, explaining that her father had recently undergone surgery.
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