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Constitutional Convention Committee Gets Advice on What to Leave Out

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Feb. 27, 2008 — A scant crowd turned out on St. Thomas and St. Croix Wednesday evening for simultaneous hearings by the Fifth Constitutional Convention Committee on Economic Development, Labor and Technology, and Energy.
It was the committee's first of at least six sessions designed to craft language related to those subjects for the constitution. If approved, the constitution would replace the Revised Organic Act of 1954, passed by Congress, which established the territory's governing structure. Proponents of a constitution say it places greater powers in the hands of the people.
Six people offered testimony or responses to testimony Wednesday. Three of the speakers were attorneys, each of whom cautioned constitutional delegates to choose their words carefully when deciding what, if anything, needs to be said regarding economic development, labor, technology and energy.
"I have a lot to say about the subjects," said Richard Austin speaking from St. Croix, "but in the context of a constitution, my comments would be limited because of my thoughts about what a constitution should really include."
Austin is the executive director of Legal Services of the Virgin Islands and a graduate of Harvard University. He told delegates that less is more when it comes to inserting these subjects into a constitution, whose purpose is to convey and protect basic rights.
"I think that it would be wise not to put specific language regarding these areas in a constitution," Austin said, explaining that they are too subject to change. "I think the constitution should be a document that stands the test of time. Let the popularly elected legislature handle day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade matters that come before it."
Clive Rivers, an attorney in private practice on St. Thomas, agreed that these areas are best left to the Legislature.
"It's not the area that you find an overwhelming amount of written documentation in any constitution because it's not typically the thing that is constitutionally addressed," Rivers said.
Rivers' testimony followed that of Sen. Ronald E. Russell, who referenced the constitution of Ethiopia during his testimony, prompting this from Rivers: "The ultimate measuring block becomes the U.S. Constitution. To a large extent, it would be foolhardy to put proposals in the constitution that … will be shot down before the federal courts because for one reason or another they fly (outside) the bounds of the U.S. Constitution."
Delegate Gerard M. Emanuel, secretary of the convention, was troubled by Rivers' comment. Emanuel cited language, which he interpreted to convey broader rights, from Article Six of the legislation that created the convention. Emanuel suggested that the territory's constitution may provide "protective measures" such as restricting voting rights to people who have at least 10 years' residency in the Virgin Islands, even though that would be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
"The long and short is … the V.I. constitution … will be tested against the U.S. constitution … the supreme law of the land," Rivers responded.
Natalie Nelson, a private attorney on St. Croix, also cautioned delegates to opt for broad language, while still urging them to close what she called "loopholes" in the territory's labor laws. And she told the authors when writing the constitution to remember not just the public-sector employees, but also private-sector workers.
Also testifying was Percival Edwards, the only citizen who spoke, who offered delegates suggestions on reference materials to use as they prepare their portion of the constitution.
Testimony before this committee continues Thursday at the same locations: the Curriculum Center on St. Thomas and the Great Hall, Room 134, at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Croix. Slated to speak Thursday are Sen. Juan Figeroa-Serville, chair of the Senate Committee on Labor, and Abdul Ali, president of Local 9484 of the United Steelworkers of America. Testimony from local labor leader Ricky Brown has been postponed. The public is also welcome to speak, beginning at 6 p.m.
A July deadline to finish the constitution has been extended until Oct. 1, according to Stedmann Hodge Jr., chairman of the committee. Once adopted by two-thirds of the delegates, the document gets passed to the governor, followed by Congress, and ultimately goes to the president for approval, as well as before V.I. voters for possible ratification.
Attempts to achieve ratification of a constitution by four previous constitutional conventions, beginning in 1964, have failed.
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