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Prospect of Another Constitutional Convention Raises Concerns for Former Delegate

Mary Moorhead appearing before the V.I. Legislature on July 11, 2016. (V.I. Legislature photo by Barry Leerdam)
Mary Moorhead appearing before the V.I. Legislature on July 11, 2016. (V.I. Legislature photo by Barry Leerdam)

The Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention was not a success, and at least one delegate to that convention said she worries another such effort could be a waste of time.

Mary Moorhead was not only a delegate, but she was part of a lawsuit against what she and other delegates saw as Senate interference in the process.

She recently sent correspondence to Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. saying, “A Sixth Constitutional Convention will not be more successful than the fifth.”

Moorhead was responding to a bill passed by the Senate last week which will allow a referendum on holding another constitutional convention. The initiative was advocated for by the League of Women Voters USVI and awaits the signature of Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.

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Sen. Myron Jackson said, “In our quest for self-determination a constitution is critical for self-governance. Our status relationship to the United States is an act we must achieve.”

Since her experience as a constitutional convention delegate, Moorhead has advocated for the adoption of the Revised Organic Act as the V.I. Constitution. She reasons that since Congress wrote the Organic Act, it will not object to anything in it.

Congress rejected the constitution proposed by the Fifth Constitutional Convention due to several controversial sections. One section said only native-born Virgin Islanders can run for governor or lieutenant governor and another said, “ancestral Virgin Islanders” (those who had family in the territory in or prior to 1932) would be exempt from property tax. Even when it was forwarded to Congress most delegates assumed it would not pass muster.

It took a long time for the delegates to produce the rejected document.

The Fifth Constitutional Convention convened in 2007 and completed its draft in 2009. Gov. John deJongh Jr. declined to forward the document to President Barack Obama, citing constitutional and other problems with several passages.

The V.I. Superior Court concluded deJongh did not have the authority to decide whether to send the document on and ordered him to forward the draft. In 2010 the U.S. Senate asked the convention to reconvene and address Congress’ concerns with the document. The convention was active until 2012 but never addressed the concerns.

Moorhead told the Source this week that legal research indicates that to adopt the Revised Organic Act as the constitution, a convention will still have to be called. She now advocates for a convention with limited members and directions to adopt the 1954 Revised Organic Act in its entirety with the addition of an amendment section.

Moorhead expressed concern that the recent bill was adopted without giving the public prior notice and she cannot find a copy of it on the Legislature’s website. She wrote emails to Senate President Francis and bill sponsor Jackson.

Shawna Richards, Francis’ chief of staff, responded saying, “Sen. Francis has strongly considered the merits of adopting the Revised Organic Act of 1954 as the V.I. Constitution and has filed a bill draft request to accomplish this objective.” She added that Francis’ bill was preempted by Jackson’s bill.

The bill, as described in a press release from Jackson’s office, appears to concur with Moorhead’s advocacy. It says, “Bill 33-0292 is an Act providing for referendum vote on convening a constitutional convention to consider adopting the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands or portions of it as the Constitution of the Virgin Islands. It is meant to serve as a first step toward having a working document that can be altered later.”

The League of Women Voters plans to lead a public education campaign over the next five months to create enough interest to bring more than 50 percent of the electorate to the polls.

Moorhead also expressed concern the elected membership of the new convention “will basically be similar to that of the fifth.”

Moorhead wrote to the Source, “After my experience with the Fifth Constitutional Convention, I repeatedly advocated for the idea [adopting the Revised Organic Act] which originated from Sen. [Usie] Richards. In Sen. [Kurt] Vialet’s first term, I requested his support for the idea. It was explained from Legislature’s legal counsel that a convention must be convened to adopt the Revised Organic Act. That is the required process. I continued to advocate for the adoption in whatever means was necessary. I would have expected to learn that a draft was in consideration. The communication of representatives to community is disappointing and COVID-19 cannot be blamed. Representatives must be equally responsive to individuals as to organizations.”

Three days before its final deadline to submit a constitution, the Fifth Constitutional Convention met and deadlocked on a vote to approve changes recommended by a special legal team. The vote tied 13 to 13.

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