You Say You Want a Constitution

The DC Statehood Commission has embarked on a bold plan to both adopt a state constitution and vote on a referendum for statehood this year. I am fully supportive of a referendum on statehood but I have serious problems with what seems like a rushed and not well thought out plan to adopt a new constitution (it’s really just the Home Rule Charter which Congress wrote FOR us in 1973).

Despite my reservations about the process we are moving forward with Town Halls for comments on the draft constitution being held over the next two weeks and then the “constitutional convention” being held on June 13, 17, & 18. We all can participate either online or in person and if we want to make this constitution better we all should participate. As such I’ve put together my own thoughts on how to make this draft constitution better. If I had more time and an in-house constitutional lawyer I’d bet I’d have more recommendations and more refined changes but these are the areas that stood out most to me.

I hope my thoughts help ignite your own thoughts and thinking about how we can make our new constitution better and thus our new state the best in the union. We need to have a constitution that reflects our values, principles, and aspirations for a more just, representative, responsive, and inclusive local government.

And so, here’s how I’d change the draft constitution:

The Name: I think we need to break free of paying homage to Christopher Columbus in our name. I would prefer to being the Douglass Commonwealth thus keeping D.C. Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist, suffragist, public servant, humanitarian and the “Lion of Anacostia.” I cannot think of a better person to name our new state after than him. As he famously said “power concedes nothing without a demand” and his words should be the words that guide us in becoming a state.

Additionally, the name “District of Columbia” is a legal name not a constitutional name thus I’d say that all future statehood legislation should say that the federal district shall be name the District of Washington after our first President. Right now the New Columbia Admission Act is mute on the name of the federal district and future statehood bills should name the federal district after Washington.

The Bill of Rights: The draft constitution regurgitates the U.S. Bill of Rights which is redundant and unnecessary.  We should leave out the U.S. Bill of Rights as they already apply to us and use a scaled down version of rights from the 1982 Constitution. Here are the some proposed rights:

  1. Freedom of Assembly & Expression
  2. Freedom of Religion and Separation of Church & State
  3. Right to Vote
  4. Freedom from Discrimination
  5. Right to Privacy

 

Article I – Legislative Branch:

  • Have a bicameral legislature. The current Council composition (8 Ward CMs and 5 At-Large including the Chair) should serve as the Senate with the Chair becoming the President of the Senate. All should serve staggered 4 year terms like now (a unicameral legislature could work provided it is more representative than the current Council).
  • The lower House (House of Delegates) should be apportioned based on population determined every 10 years after the Census. In general, each delegate should represent 20-25,000 people thus making our House of Delegates at present numbers roughly 33 members. We should always have an odd number of delegates and the delegates should elect the Speaker of the House. Delegates should be elected every 2 years.
  • All vacancies should be filled by a special election ONLY.
  • The Governor should not have line item veto authority in the constitution.

Article II – Executive Branch

  • The constitution needs to include language that articulates the Attorney General’s authority to prosecute civil and criminal cases and better articulate the role of the AG in our government.
  • Planning for the statehood should be handled by either an elected Commission with 7 commissioners. Each commissioner serves a four year term.
  • The House of Delegates shall establish which educational policies the State Board of Education should have the power to approve of.

Article III – Judicial Branch

  • Get rid of the Judicial Nomination Commission unless the constitution defines who plays a role in appointing Commissioners. I could live with the JNC but the constitution would need to set parameters for who can bet on the Commission and who appoints members to it. In general, I think the Governor should appointee and the Legislature confirm which should be its own check and balance system.

Article IV – Budget and Financial Management

  • There should not be language in the constitution about reviewing contracts. The constitution should be silent on this subject. The House of Delegates has oversight responsibilities and should use them but approving contracts should be an executive function.
  • The AG’s office, SBOE, and CFO should submit their own budgets, not be part of the Governor’s Executive Branch budget.

Article V – Borrowing

  • NO COMMENT

Article VI – Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

  • NO COMMENT

Article VII – Miscellaneous

  • Should explicitly call for constitutional convention within three years after statehood so we can reassess how our new government functions post-statehood and recreate our structure of government as needed.
  • Should allow for a constitutional convention and/or amendment to the constitution to be initiated by either the legislature or by referendum.
  • Should define what minimally qualifies as a constitutional convention. Specifically, I believe that delegates should be elected to the constitutional convention.

Article VIII – Transfer of Office

  • Should add under Voting Rights: Citizens (or residents) of this state shall have the right to vote to ensure the franchise for all (or keep in the Bill of Rights)
  • All Offices should be voted on within one year after statehood admission. I think it’s important to have new elections for all officeholders within a year of statehood given everyone will have new responsibilities.

The Map

  • The existing statehood bill before Congress makes the federal enclave too big and that the federal enclave should only include the Mall, the White House, the Capitol and surrounding office buildings, and the Supreme Court. The military bases on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers should be in the new state just like military bases across the country. In other words, the smaller the federal enclave the better.
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