The U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution late Thursday evening 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 Constitutional Convention completed the draft constitution last year. 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.
In her testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on May 19, Delegate Donna Christensen urged Congress to reconvene and fund the Fifth Convention rather than amend the document themselves. She then wanted the document to go directly to the people for a vote, but the Senate disagreed, according to a statement from Christensen.
“I believe that any changes that will be made should be done by the people elected to draft the document,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to address the concerns of the White House and the Justice Department before the people vote on the measure.”
Getting a constitution passed is crucial for the territory, Christensen said.
“I consider the adoption of our own constitution an important and requisite step in our political development,” Christensen said last month. “This is our fifth attempt. It could be yet another generation before a sixth convention is convened. That is unacceptable.”
The Senate resolution was introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
"There are few more solemn duties in government than that of developing and adopting a constitution," Bingaman said while introducing the measure. He commended the delegates "for their effort and their commitment to this solemn duty."
He also urged them to carefully consider the issues raised by the President and Congress and to revise the proposed constitution by removing or amending those provisions that are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
"Under this Resolution, the delegates will have the choice of conforming the Proposed Constitution to these shared principles, or of endorsing the conflicts between the Proposed Constitution and the U.S. Constitution," Bingaman said. "Endorsing these conflicts will most certainly result in either disapproval of the Proposed Constitution by the voters of the Virgin Islands, or in years of litigation that will eventually strike down these provisions. I urge the delegates to take this rare opportunity to bring closure to the process — to make the needed revisions and to be remembered for their leadership in bringing a constitution to the people of the Virgin Islands."
The resolution will likely come before the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote next week, according to Christensen’s office. Legislation that authorized the drafting of a Constitution of the Virgin Islands gave Congress 60 days to act on the document, and that time, calculated as legislative days, will be over at the end of June. If the House does not act in time, the document will go directly to the people for a vote without reconvening the convention.
Once passed by the House, the document would go back to a reconvened Fifth Convention. That body can choose to act or not on the document. It would then return to the President and Congress for final review and they would have 45 days in which to do so, after which it will be sent back to the people of the Virgin Islands for a vote. “We are hopeful that the Fifth Convention will choose to act swiftly which would enable a vote by the people this November,” Christensen said.
Christensen said Friday that federal funds for the convention to reconvene are available through the U.S. Interior Department, although details are still being worked out.