If the District is to be credible as one of the 51 states of the Union, we who are its residents must begin to take ourselves seriously and not treat our existing legislative process and the constitution proposed by the statehood constitution convention as unrelated. If the proposed constitution is worthy of support, we should pledge ourselves, within our current local government powers, to support its principles immediately.
It is not necessary to wait for Congress to act before doing what is right. If the proposed constitution is ill-considered, the District's leaders should oppose it; then if is defeated at the polls, a suitable document can be written.
It appears, however, that rather than evaluating the constitution and taking a forthright position, the government is sticking its head in the sand and ignoring the document. In the past two weeks, the council approved, without a single word of debate, legislation with avowed purposes in conflict with the proposed constitution. The infirmities are so basic that the council's intent violates the proposed constitution's bill of rights:
The stated intent of one law, the Drunk Driving Act, is to take away the right to a jury trial from people charged with first offenses. This is directly contrary to the proposed constitutional requirement that "every person accused of a criminal offense is guaranteed the right to: a . . . trial by a jury of 12 persons. Conviction may be based only upon a unanimous jury verdict finding the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
As part of a crackdown on violent crime--and with some good prodding from Congress, the council began action last week on legislation specifically intended to keep repeat offenders in jail pending trial. Although the proposal was abandoned Friday, during the discussion, no mention was made of the fact that the proposed District constitution would be violated. The proposed bill of rights is crystal clear on the subject: "The sole purpose of bail is to assure the presence of the accused at trial." Regardless of the merit of the council proposal, it will be struck down if the constitution becomes efffective.
If these safeguards are so important that they must be singled out for inclusion in our bill of rights, it is irresponsible of the council to pass legislation conflicting with such "rights." On the other hand, if a unanimous council believes that jury trials unnecessarily hamper prosecution of drunk driving offenses, or that bail while awaiting trial is detrimental to public safety, council members should make that clear. We as residents would be poorly advised to approve a constitution that would immediately void council initiatives to control drunk driving and repeat criminal offenses.
There is merit to both positions. But what is more important than the specific legislation is the answer to the question that surely will be raised by opponents of statehood: should statehood be granted to a jurisdiction whose legislature would unanimously, without even seeing a need for discussion, violate sections of its own bill of rights?
At least on the surface, it would appear that the public does not value these basic rights highly, if the council does not even feel a need to justify trampling them. A more sinister interpretation might conclude that the council actions show the constitution to be a sham and that it is never intended to be enforced.
The provisions of the proposed constitution may be as they are because there was so little public discussion and consensus on its terms during the drafting process. We cannot continue to be silent on our future charter. If the constitution as written is ratified by the people, the elected council and mayor should pledge to abide by it within their current powers. If the proposed document is deficient, it is incumbent upon these leaders to expose its deficiencies. But to advocate both the constitution's adoption and its immediate violation is to take a position that is unworthy of state officials.