The constitution-making process in the District is a sham. At best, it is a deeply flawed exercise driven by political considerations rather than aimed at producing the best possible constitution for a new state. A constitution is a state’s most important document. Its preparation demands careful consideration and meaningful public participation.
On June 1, as a supporter of statehood and an interested D.C. citizen, I went to the announced Ward 6 public meeting on the draft constitution — only to find that it had been canceled without notice. When I called the New Columbia Statehood Commission to ask what had happened, I was told that there would be no Ward 6 meeting. In fact, I was informed, the promised meetings in half of the city’s wards were canceled because there was “no time” for eight meetings. The timeline, I was told, was established by the mayor.
The meeting cancellation is symptomatic of the entire approach toward the New Columbia constitution. The process and timeline were established without public consultation and do not provide adequate time or channels for meaningful public input.
The constitutional timeline is designed for speed rather than quality. It is built on artificial deadlines rather than on an assessment of the time needed for citizens to consider and deliberate over a document as important as a constitution. The release of a draft on May 6, with the proposed Statehood Commission adoption on June 24, spans just seven weeks, a ludicrously short time to consider and adopt a constitution. The D.C. Council will be given just eight days to review and adopt the final draft. Good practice in constitution-making requires time and opportunity for study, reflection, public consultation and consensus-building. It is most important to get the constitution right.
The circumstances surrounding public participation are even worse than the timeline. The draft was prepared under the auspices of the Statehood Commission, a group of just five individuals whose legal mandate does not include drafting a constitution. Although the five are elected officials, none was elected to draft a constitution. They decided which changes proposed by the public would be included. They constituted themselves as a “constitutional convention” held from June 13 to 18 to hear further proposals and again decide which ones to accept.
The next step is to gain approval by the mayor, who happens to be one of the five members of the commission. For five people to wield complete control over the content of a constitution is not a democratic process. It is not even a serious process.
The official document through which the Statehood Commission released the constitution on May 6 states that citizens can have input into the draft through membership on committees, but the only committees established are to promote the draft, not to consider its content. The same release states that citizens can have input through a solicitation by the Board of Elections, but there has been no such solicitation and, a commission staffer told me, there may or may not be one. The document also assures us that there will be “town hall meetings in all 8 Wards . . . to ensure participation by District residents,” a promise quickly broken.
The Statehood Commission’s answer to these criticisms was that it is vital to have the approved constitution ready in time for the upcoming national political conventions and the inauguration of a new president and Congress. Such political considerations are important, but not important enough to circumvent the democratic process or shortchange the quality of a state’s most important document.
The last barrier against this runaway train would be action by the D.C. Council. The prospects for this may be bleak, however, because the council chairman is one of the five members of the Statehood Commission and no member of the council would want to appear to be holding up statehood. Still, the council and the citizens of New Columbia can and should demand a better constitutional process.
The writer has worked for the State Department, the United Nations and other organizations on democracy issues.