CCJ Ruling and Judicial Equality

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By Dr Vishnu Bisram

Guyanese (at home and in the diaspora) are questioning the ruling of the CCJ on the so called “third term case” relating to former President Bharrat Jagdeo. They see it as the CCJ affirming race and denying judicial equity to all ethnic groups.

Guyanese were on edge on the eve of the then prospective ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on June 27 on the case. It was the talk among Guyanese everywhere (markets, public transport, offices, streets, etc.) abroad and in Guyana and even within the Caribbean. In my travels, a large majority of Guyanese want Jagdeo to run for a third term because of what they describe as “the failed governance” of the coalition administration.

They have confidence Jagdeo would turn around the economy to improve the standard of living of the population that has been dropping over the last three years. They say the coalition filed the appeal to prevent Jagdeo from running again as President after the Guyana courts ruled that term limits were unconstitutional without a referendum. They feel the coalition cannot defeat Jagdeo in an election.

They also noted that race was invoked in the appeal before the CCJ to deny Indians (and other ethnic groups) judicial equality. Not surprisingly, Guyanese commented on the composition and professionalism of the CCJ judges with a majority saying prior to the ruling that they think “the judges would be biased against Jagdeo” to block him from running for President again. They were concerned about whether the racial background of the judges and the staff of the CCJ would affect the outcome of the ruling.

Race and other non-legal factors entered into the case through their introduction by officials of the government when the appeal was first filed. A government official stated “this one is in the bag” because “our people will rule on it”. Guyanese feel the coalition government should not have invoked “race” of the judges and the CCJ personnel as factors that would determine the ruling of the appeal of the third term. They interpreted the statement as an attempt to sway the judges since Guyana has a race problem; there are no Indian judges in the case although almost half the population is of Indian descent. There has also not been an Amerindian judge or lawyer on the CCJ although 12 percent of the population is of Amerindian descent.

People I spoke with say there was much euphoria from coalition government politicians that Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo has been knocked off the PPP Presidential ballot by the CCJ. There is an air of celebration with political figures saying that the PPP will be weakened and vulnerable to defeat come 2020 without Jagdeo being the Presidential nominee as happened in 2011 and 2015 when the PPP lost support in general elections. Donald Ramotar could not win in 2011 and 2015 while Jagdeo carried the party to huge victories in 2001 and 2006. The CCJ, Guyana’s final court of appeal, on Tuesday overturned last year’s ruling of Guyana’s Appeal Court that Jagdeo could run again for President. The case should never have been about Jagdeo or on the race of the judges but on the merits of the legal argument – whether parliament is supreme over the people or the people are supreme over the parliament. The Guyana courts ruled that the people are supreme and sovereign. The CCJ disagrees.

Bharrat Jagdeo

The PPP now has a formidable challenge in choosing a Presidential candidate in the place of the very popular Jagdeo who is expected to play a leading role in choosing the Presidential nominee.

Other people I spoke with in high (independent minded) political and business circles say the ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) blocking Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo to run for a “third term” affirms what the coalition government’s legal spokesperson stated a year ago: “this one is in the bag for us (the PNC led government)” because: “we know the judges; they are our people and the CCJ is controlled by our (African) people”. That statement set the stage for the undermining of the integrity of the CCJ.

Indeed, similar to what obtains in Gecom, there are few Indians (5%) working at the CCJ and this has serious repercussions. There has never been an Indian judge in the CCJ since it was founded thirteen years ago and it has had only one Indian lawyer in its commission. The present court is comprised of four African judges, two Mixed and one White. The Chief personal assistant to the court and the person who often writes court’s decisions is an Afro-Guyanese. It is reported that he is the grandson of the Chairman of Gecom James Patterson whose appointment has been a subject of much controversy and legal challenge. Lawyers say Patterson’s appointment may wind its way before the CCJ in the near future as it is being challenged in the Guyana Court of Appeal.

It is not clear if the race of the judges played any role in the CCJ ruling against Jagdeo. But race entered into the discussion because of its introduction by officials of the PNC led government. Last April, it was reported that the court was split in the decision and that it was trying for unanimity. Since that time, judges were convinced to side with a majority. One judge (Prof Anderson) held out that the people are supreme over the parliament and that the people must play a role in amending the constitution via a referendum. The other six judges feel the parliament is supreme over the people. With the ruling, some critics say that the parliament can pass a law abolishing elections since it is more powerful than the people.

On the comment that government officials know the judges and that they would rule in government’s favor, there are reports that some of the judges are friendly with coalition government officials and were seen socializing at public events. There are also allegations of unprofessional behavior and conflict of interests. Nevertheless, it is felt that at least one of the judges should have recused himself from the case because of a serious conflict of interest. People also feel that the CCJ should have addressed the remarks of government officials of “our (African) judges and our African CCJ”.

The legal officers should have been reprimanded. Race should not have been a factor in the case. A court should be race blind.

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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