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In U.S. Territory, a Constitutional Face-Off

Gov_dejongh A lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in the U.S. Virgin Islands seeking to compel the territory's governor to forward a draft V.I. constitution to President Barack Obama. The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a face-off between the drafters of the proposed constitution and opponents who say it is at odds with the U.S. Constitution and U.S. law.

More on this in a moment, but first some background. The U.S. acquired the V.I. from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million. It remains an unincorporated U.S. territory. It has no constitution of its own. Instead, its government is structured under an act of the U.S. Congress, the Revised Organic Act of 1954. In 1980, Congress authorized a procedure by which the V.I. and another U.S. territory, Guam, could draft constitutions providing for their own governments.

For the last year and a half, delegates to the V.I.'s Fifth Constitutional Convention have been doing just that, racing to meet a May 31 deadline to complete their work. On May 26, the convention approved a draft. On June 1, the draft was delivered to V.I. Gov. John deJongh Jr. (pictured), who had 10 days to transmit it to President Obama for his review and submission to Congress.

But rather than forward it to the president, deJongh sent it to the V.I. attorney general, Vincent Frazer, for a legal opinion. Frazer concluded that the proposed constitution did not meet the requirements set by Congress. In fact, he concluded that the proposed constitution would be unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. Last Thursday, the governor held a press conference to announce that he would not forward the draft to the president. Late Friday, the delegates filed suit to compel deJongh to forward the draft.

The controversy focuses on provisions in the draft that would grant special rights to "ancestral native Virgin Islanders." They would be exempt from property taxes, only they would be able to vote on constitutional amendments, and only they could run for governor and lieutenant governor. Attorney General Frazer concluded that these provisions "quite clearly violate the substantive requirements of the U.S. Constitution, and that other provisions are more likely than not, unconstitutional."

Given this, deJongh said in his statement to the press, he could not forward the document to the president.

I also at this time want to make an observation of a more personal nature. Surely no one should expect me -- one of only three African American governors in our nation -- and, by the way, a native and ancestral Virgin Islander -- to forward a proposed constitution that is clearly unconstitutional to our nation's first African American president, who happens to also be a constitutional scholar and a former law professor.

The lawsuit filed Friday claims that the governor is overreaching his authority in failing to forward the draft to the president. The suit charges that the governor has no authority to do anything but pass on the document to the White House. "Only the president can comment on the contents of the proposed constitution," the lawsuit says.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 15, 2009 at 10:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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