Happy Virgin Islands History Month! It’s my pleasure to celebrate this month by educating, enlightening and inspiring Virgin Islanders to make history by ratifying our own constitution after five failed attempts. If not now, when? If not us, who? It has been more than a decade since the U.S. Justice Department urged the 5th Constitutional Convention to revise the draft that it submitted to Congress and almost seven decades that we have been governed by an Organic Act. On March 31, we will commemorate 105 years of being under the U.S. flag. Isn’t it time for all of us to play an active role in developing a constitution that we could be proud of?
As I am a facilitator for a Capacity Building Grant Project, my role is to educate the public on three major topics: constitutional development, political status and self-determination. These three topics are intertwined, but presently, the focus is on constitutional development. Let’s not conflate issues. We must pay attention to facts and especially be enlightened on the steps that must be taken in order to acquire a constitution.
These five questions and answers may help us understand the process:
- What is a constitution and does the USVI have a constitution? Answer: A constitution is the written basic principles, rules and laws of a nation, state or territory that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people being governed. In order words, it’s an official document that tells us how the government is structured and what rights the people being governed have. The USVI does not have a constitution yet. A referendum on the matter was held on Nov. 3, 2020. The electorate expressed a desire to have a 6th Constitutional Convention be established for the purpose of adopting the Revised Organic Act of 1954 or portions of it. The USVI is being governed by a document known as the Revised Organic Act (ROA) of the Virgin Islands of 1954. It’s serving as our constitution until it’s replaced by a constitutional draft approved by Congress and ratified by the USVI electorate. Until a draft is ratified, we will continue to be governed by the ROA.
- What is an organic act and how is it different from a constitution? Answer: In United States law, an organic act is an act of Congress that establishes a U.S. territory and specifies how it’s to be governed. The Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands of 1954, abbreviated as ROA, supersedes the VI code. The main difference between an organic act and a constitution is an organic act is written by Congress whereas a constitution is written by the people. The people of the USVI include all persons officially residing in the territory. It’s irrelevant whether a resident is a native or not.
3) Is it necessary for a political status referendum to occur before a constitutional draft is ratified? Answer: No, but a political status referendum has already been conducted and the electorate chose the status quo. That referendum occurred in 1993. Note that no political party is advocating for a political status referendum and none of the incumbent senators has proposed a status referendum.
4) What happens if a 6th Constitutional Convention fails to convene? Answer: We will remain in a state of limbo. That means there will be an indefinite delay in the journey to replace the ROA with our own constitution; the outcome would be an impasse. It would make the road to self- determination bumpier but would not stop the Capacity Building team from proceeding to educate the public about political status.
5) Can the ROA be adopted and later be amended by us, the people of the USVI? Answer: Yes, the ROA can be adopted by a constitutional convention and later amendments could be ratified by the electorate. Public Law 94-584 “authorizes the people of the Virgin Islands and of Guam, respectively, to organize governments pursuant to constitutions of their own adoption as provided in this Act.”
Finally, we have lived with the ROA for an exceedingly long time and not being able to amend it ourselves should be a major concern. When the decision is made to replace the ROA with our own constitution, we must take specific steps for success. At a future date, I will enumerate the steps towards success.
Let’s work together to make the journey towards self-determination as smooth and expedient as possible. Sincerely,
Verdel L. “Crucian Educator” Petersen
St. Croix (513-0228)