D.C. Releases Draft Statehood Constitution

     WASHINGTON (CN) — Leaders of the District of Columbia took another step Friday in their renewed effort to petition Congress for statehood with the release of a draft constitution for public review.
     In a tent outside President Lincoln’s Cottage in Northwest Washington, D.C., the commission charged with piloting the city’s statehood effort voted to release a 67-page document that details how the District would govern itself as an independent state.
     “Wheras, we the people of the District of Columbia desire to become a state of the United States of America, where, like citizens of the other states, we will enjoy the full rights of citizens of the United States: to democracy and a republican form of government, to enact our own laws governing state affairs, and to voting representation in the United States Congress,” the draft constitution’s preamble reads.
     The New Columbia Statehood Commission was created in 2014 and consists of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chair Phil Mendelson and three members of the city’s “shadow” Congressional delegation. The commission is tasked with leading the city through its quest to gain approval from Congress to become the first state admitted to the union since Hawaii entered in 1959.
     The new state would be called New Columbia.
     District voters could have a chance to vote on an advisory referendum in November that would allow them to signal their desire to become the 51st state, as well as to approve the proposed state’s boundaries, its constitution and its form of government.
     But D.C. would still need to get approval from Congress before becoming a fully represented state, a tough prospect as many Republicans bristle at the idea of approving a state that would be likely to consistently send Democrats to the Hill. The District currently sends a delegation to Congress, but its “shadow” members cannot vote.
     More than 50 people braved a cold, rainy Friday afternoon to attend the release of the draft constitution, which was passed around the large white tent that housed the event and was posted online as soon as the commission unanimously agreed to release it.
     A team of lawyers and legal scholars from D.C.-area universities teamed together to write the draft constitution, which proposes a government structure that should be very familiar to voters in the United States.
     “It is, of course, just an opening draft, it is a starting point that will engage the members of the public, but it is exciting to be participating in the very first, what I believe to be, the very first constitutional convention here in the 21st century,” shadow Sen. Paul Strauss said at the hearing.
     The document begins with a 10-point bill of rights that almost perfectly parrots the federal equivalent, including the Second Amendment, which drew an objection from one citizen who questioned whether the guarantee was appropriate for a city that has long been plagued by gun violence.
     The draft also calls for a 13-member House of Delegates, a governor elected to four-year terms, and a courts system consisting of an appeals and superior court.
     While the people who attended the release of the draft cheered at the idea of New Columbia, some raised concerns during a public comment period about a number of points in the proposed document.
     One common complaint was the size of the legislature, which at 13 members would be by far the smallest in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. By comparison, Wyoming, which has an estimated population 100,000 less than the District’s, has a bicameral legislature with 90 total representatives.
     Additionally, some in the audience questioned why some of the rights from the original constitution drafted in 1982 were left out of the new document. The 1982 constitution, though approved by the voters, was criticized as being too ambitious, with directives like broad protections against discrimination and a right to employment.
     But concerns about the process through which the draft constitution was created were most noticeable at the Friday’ hearing. While Strauss praised the team of lawyers and scholars that compiled the document, others claimed it cut out public input on what the new state should look like.
     “I believe that statehood is an important issue and for statehood to pass you must guarantee the participation of all the people in Washington, you must go through the process democratically,” said Maurice Jackson, an associate professor at Georgetown University who raised a concern at the hearing. “You can’t have a city council writing the constitution, it must be written by delegates.”
     Others warned that just achieving statehood is not the only measure of success of the statehood movement.
     “We have to be very careful that this is what we want,” said Anise Jenkins, who has represented Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. at the hearing. “I mean, we are excited that this movement is moving forward, you know, but we have to be very careful that it’s what the people want.”
     But Strauss defended the process, saying technology has changed what constitutional conventions can look like.
     “The way we’re responding to that is we have come up with the most inclusive constitutional convention process ever devised,” Strauss said. “Literally any citizen of the District of Columbia can petition and become a delegate to this convention and weigh in. We no longer need 40 people in a room. We no longer need to be in the same room in this exciting century.”
     Voters will be able to file comments on the draft constitution on a dedicated website and at town hall meetings set to take place over the next month. There will also be a traditional constitutional convention, set for the weekend of June 17 and 18, where residents can propose amendments and give testimony about the document.
     “This is literally a big tent today that we’re under and we are going to create a virtual bigger tent to get more and more comments and see what the public thinks of what we’re doing,” Strauss said.
     The statehood commission will submit a final draft of the constitution to the city council no later than June 30, which will then consider the constitution and vote on a referendum resolution. That resolution would go before the board of elections which would certify the plan and put it on the ballot.
     If all goes well, the commission hopes to have New Columbia statehood before Congress by 2017.
     For D.C. residents who have been fighting for statehood for years, Friday’s announcement is an exciting step for the movement.
     “This is it, I am excited, I am really, very, very excited,” Jackson said. “It’s going to happen because we’re going to make it happen. Statehood is for the people, statehood is of, by and for the people and we’re going to make this happen.”

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