In 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial was celebrated throughout the United States and the U.S. Congress passed an act to allow Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands to write constitutions. Every state in the U.S. as well as Puerto Rico and the CNMI have constitutions. The timing of this approval was also linked to the commonwealth status granted to the CNMI around the same time. By the way, within a couple of years after becoming a commonwealth, the CNMI had an approved constitution.
In my opinion, in the early 1970s, Guam was envious of the attention the federal government was paying to our island neighbors to the north. The CNMI was getting politically developed at a rate that was superior to Guam. In 1969, the CNMI approved a proposal to unify with Guam, and the same year this idea was rejected by Guam voters. At the time the federal government was working with the CNMI to become a commonwealth, a federal task force made a policy recommendation to also grant Guam this status. Leaders on Guam were never told about this idea even though President Ford directed officials to implement the suggestion.
After Congress passed the authorization, Guam held a very deliberate constitutional convention in 1977 led by Carl Gutierrez. The draft document is available on Guampedia and is very interesting to read. A very thick book of the proceedings was made and is still available to review at various public libraries. The meetings show a very healthy and forward-thinking set of discussions for Guam.
The draft constitution was approved by the U.S. Congress but was defeated by Guam voters primarily due to fears that this move would change Guam’s political status. It is likely that voters on Guam could still approve this document and in my opinion, this should be a top priority for our leaders.
Guam could approve this document with a phased-in schedule to allow the document to be amended somewhat to bring it up to date. On the other hand, the Guam Legislature could call a constitutional convention under federal law and simply make needed corrections. The easiest way to do this is for the senators to draft out the updates, hold hearings and then hold a one-day convention populated by the senators. The key flaw in the current draft is that it is extremely difficult to amend.
Guam could also use an updated draft as a form of political communication with the federal government. Congress must consider the draft constitutions under a strict timeline. The preamble of the current draft constitution partly reads, “… assuming the responsibilities of self-government within political union with the United States .…” This could be updated to read, “… assuming the responsibilities of self-government as a colony of the United States …” After all, the U.S. put Guam on the list of non-self-governing territories in 1946. The key is to use the options Guam has available. We should have a Guam Constitution and our leaders can make it happen.
Ron McNinch teaches at the University of Guam School of Business and Public Administration.