March 21, 2002 – A federal judge heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit asking that Virgin Islanders be allowed to vote in presidential elections and have voting representation in Congress.
Plaintiff Krim Ballantine has asked the U.S. District Court to rule unconstitutional the Revised Organic Act that Congress passed in 1954 as the governing structure of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Under the act, Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens but are not allowed to vote for president or to have a voting representative in Congress.
The Organic Act also gives Congress the power to overturn laws passed by the territorial government. Because Virgin Islands residents do not have a direct say in passing the laws that govern them, the territory is one of 17 jurisdictions around the world on the United Nations list of "non-self-governing territories."
District Court Judge Thomas Moore presided over a packed courtroom Thursday to hear oral arguments from Ballantine, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joycelyn Hewlett and representatives of an international law clinic at Yale University who argued that the territory's status puts it in violation of an international treaty that calls for the ending of colonial rule.
"The Virgin Islands today remains in a state of colonialism," said Elizabeth Brundige of the Allard Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic at Yale. The U.S. government has not met its obligations under the 1992 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to promote self-determination in the Virgin Islands, she said.
Moore must rule on Hewlett's motion to have the case thrown out on the grounds that the so-called Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court rulings at the beginning of the 1900s, gave Congress the power to set up the territory's system of government.
"The Insular Cases have not been overturned, and they're still good law," Hewlett said. "As the law now stands, Mr. Ballantine's case should be dismissed."
Moore said he would consider the matter but did not give a date by which he would rule on whether to dismiss the case or allow it to move forward.
In a written opinion last October, Moore indicated that he agreed in principle with Ballantine's assertions. But he said he needed more information to decide whether he is bound by the Insular Cases, which Moore called overtly racist.
"Mr. Ballantine reminds us that the nature and extent of the citizenship of residents of the Virgin Islands have been controlled up to now by a thoroughly ossified set of cases marked by the intrinsically racist imperialism of a previous era of United States colonial expansion," Moore wrote.
Paul Leary, a retired University of the Virgin Islands political science professor, said the court case could restart the debate over the territory's status. "These are fundamental issues about our rights as citizens," he said.
In 1993, about 27 percent of registered voters cast ballots in a referendum asking whether the territory should pursue statehood or independence from the United States or continue under the present status. About 80 percent voted to continue as a territory, but the low turnout and confusion about the ballots raised questions about the validity of the referendum, Leary said.
Ballantine, a retired deputy U.S. marshal, has said he will appeal the District Court decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals if he loses.

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