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Guam residents seek more self government

In an effort to address deficiencies in Guam’s relationship with the United States, two constitutional conventions were convened by island leaders. Collectively, the conventions are referred to as ConCon. Since 1898, Guam has been a possession of the United States. Although the Organic Act of Guam afforded the people of Guam limited self-government and American citizenship, the island continues to lack political sovereignty and its people still are subject to US federal oversight. The ConCon was one of numerous efforts that sought to achieve a greater measure of self-government on Guam and address imbalances in power between the US federal government and the local Government of Guam.

The first Guam Constitutional Convention

The first Guam Constitutional Convention began with the passage of Public Law 9-244 sponsored by the late Senator Richard F. Taitano. The legislation directed that a constitutional convention be held to review and make recommendations on proposed modifications to the Organic Act of Guam. Passed in 1950 by the US Congress, the Organic Act transferred governing powers from the US Navy to the US Department of Interior creating a civil rather than military government for the island. Prior to this, the island had been administered by a naval government since 1898, excluding the World War II years on Guam (1941-1944) when Japan occupied the island.

The Organic Act granted limited congressional US citizenship to residents of Guam and reinforced the island’s political status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. At the time of its passage, the Organic Act was viewed as a significant improvement to what many believed was an unjust colonial situation on Guam. The decades that followed the Organic Act’s passage, however, revealed that many of the concerns among island residents, such as federal land acquisitions, uncontrolled immigration, and limitations placed on the Government of Guam had not been addressed by the act.

The first convention was funded by the 10th Guam Legislature and met from 1 June 1969 through 29 June 1970 with 43 elected delegates. This first constitutional convention, which did not have any federal authority to convene, recommended 34 changes to the Organic Act of Guam, of which only one recommendation was acted upon. At this point, the aim was to revise the existing Organic Act rather than change the political status of the island altogether. Due to the inability of the first convention to achieve the desired recommendations, it became apparent to many island leaders and residents that a new course of action was warranted.

The second Guam Constitutional Convention

The second Guam Constitutional Convention was convened on 1 July 1977 to create a constitution for Guam that would redefine the island’s relationship with the US rather than merely modifying the existing relationship. The convention met periodically through 31 October 1977 and drafted a constitution to govern Guam as an unincorporated territory of the United States. The constitution was based on the latest constitutional models in the 50 states.

The proposed constitution incorporated social, economic, cultural, political, and administrative reforms, and departed significantly from the US-written and imposed Organic Act of Guam of 1950. Federal authority to create a Guam Constitution was provided by US Public Law 94-584 (90 Stat. 2899) as amended by US Public Law 96-597 (94 Stat. 3479). These statutes also authorized the US Virgin Islands to create a constitution.

At the time of its passage in 1976, the US was involved in political status negotiations with the Northern Mariana Islands. The Northern Mariana Islands, which was part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) administered by the US under the mandate of the United Nations, had selected a commonwealth status similar to Puerto Rico. The rest of the TTPI became independent countries and negotiated separate free association agreements with the US. These include the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Kosrae and Pohnpei), and the Republic of Palau.

The Guamanian leadership expressed widespread dissatisfaction with Guam’s status quo and feelings of perceived inequity were caused by direct US negotiations with the Northern Mariana Islands. This dissatisfaction was organized and addressed by political status commissions established in 1973 and 1975, and through informal polls and a plebiscite in 1976, whereby voters of Guam elected to pursue a closer union with the US. Public Law 13-202 was enacted on 10 December 1976 to establish the framework to pursue drafting the constitution, and a non-partisan election was held on 16 April 1977 to elect 32 delegates. US citizens qualified to vote on Guam were eligible to become elected delegates. Although Chamorros and non-Chamorros were elected, only two delegates were women—Judith P. Guthertz and Judith T. Won Pat. Delegates included a retired judge, senators, village commissioners (mayors), bankers, lawyers, students, journalists, public employees, federal civil servants, educators and government officials. Carl T. C. Gutierrez, who had served as a Senator in the Guam Legislature, was elected convention president.

Over the course of its term, several controversial proposals were discussed and acted upon by convention delegates. These include the following:

  1. Future Governors and Lieutenant Governors of Guam must be born on island or be direct descendants of native-born Chamorros (defeated)
  2. The rights of the unborn child to be protected (tabled)
  3. That pregnant women not be denied the right to abortions (tabled)
  4. Guam’s 19 villages be merged into 10 districts with a 22-member legislature (passed)
  5. That homosexuals be given the right to marry (defeated)
  6. That capital punishment be banned on Guam unless the voters decide otherwise in a referendum (passed)
  7. That Chamorro and English be the official languages of Guam and that Chamorro also be used in official actions of public record (passed)
  8. That a “Right-to-Work” provision be included in the Constitution (defeated)
  9. That persons born of married or unmarried parents have equal rights (passed)

Thirty-four elected delegates signed the Guam Constitution on 15 December 1977 at their offices in the Bank of Tokyo Building in Hagåtña. Witnessing the event were Governor Ricardo J. Bordallo, Speaker Joseph F. Ada, and Guam Delegate Antonio B. Won Pat, among many others. [For a list of the 2nd Guam Constitutional Convention Delegates, click here.]

Among the provisions included in the Guam Constitution were as follows:

  1. Fifteen-year residency requirement for Governor and Lt. Governor
  2. Legislature shall consider a Two-Year Budget
  3. Sixty-day default approval for all executive appointees unless otherwise rejected by the Legislature
  4. Elected Auditor General (single term, non-partisan, restricted political activities)
  5. Elected Attorney General (single term, non-partisan, restricted political activities)
  6. Order of succession is different, as the Speaker, Vice-Speaker and legislative leadership do not have default duties to act in the absence of both the Governor and Lt. Governor
  7. Clear authority to change the allocation of departments and their functions, powers and duties are provided to the Governor (Reorganization)
  8. Guam Legislature would be comprised of no more than 27 and no less than 15 members to be elected by 10 districts.
  9. Impeachment proceedings would be initiated by the Legislature and then decided by a Judicial Council comprised of attorneys and non-attorneys (no judicial officers would serve on the Council)
  10. Elected Boards of Education
  11. Official fruit of Guam would be the betel nut and coconut

Governor Bordallo and Convention President Gutierrez presented the Guam Constitution to US President Jimmy Carter. President Carter approved the constitution, as did the US Congress led by Senator Spark Matsunaga (D- Hawaii), Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Congressmen Mo Udall (D-Arizona) and Manuel Lujan (D-New Mexico), Chairman and Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Matsunaga called the Guam Constitution a model for other Pacific territories at US Senate hearings in May 1978.

Defeat of the Draft Constitution

Although approved at the federal level, the people of Guam roundly rejected the Constitution (82 percent of the vote) in a referendum held in August of 1979, and no new convention has been held pursuant to congressional authority since 1979. Reasons for rejection were that:

  1. Constitution was not really a local expression of self-determination.
  2. The political status question remained unresolved in Guam.

These primary reasons for rejection stemmed from the imposition of a US federal mandate on the drafting of the constitution that stipulated that any constitution for Guam not violate the existing federal-territorial relationship. Many believed that this ultimately defeated the purpose of adopting a constitution for Guam that sought to change the island’s relationship with the United States.

Political arguments against adoption of the Constitution also included its failure to address Chamorro political status and sovereignty, and that other status options might be closed in the eyes of the United States had the Constitution been ratified. These arguments were articulated by community organizations and political activists led by Para Pada y Chamorros (literally, “stop slapping Chamorros”), a group that advocated the perpetuation of Chamorro culture and language, a return of federally owned land to the indigenous owners, and Chamorro-self government.

As a result of this defeat, the 15th Guam Legislature commissioned the first in-depth assessment of all possible status options for Guam in 1979, including integration with the Northern Mariana Islands and annexation to the state of Hawaii as a county. The study concluded that Commonwealth status based on the Northern Mariana Islands model would be the best option for Guam. Plebiscites were held in 1980 and 1982, and Commonwealth status was selected as the political status to pursue with the United States.

The 17th Guam Legislature established the Commission on Self-Determination,  and the Guam Commonwealth Draft Act was subsequently approved by Guam voters and introduced in the US Congress. To date, Congress has not acted upon the Guam Commonwealth Draft Act, and the island’s political relationship with the United States remains the same as it did since the 1950 passage of the Organic Act of Guam.

By Josh Tenorio and James Perez Viernes

e-Publication: The Draft Constitution of Guam

Courtesy of the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC)

For further reading

Ada, Joseph and Leland Bettis. 1996. “The Quest for Commonwealth, the Quest for Change,” in Kinalamten Pulitikåt: Siñenten I Chamorro, Issues in Guam’s Political Development. Hagåtña, Guam: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, pp. 125-203.

Rogers, Robert. 1995. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.