Can fmr. politicians be trusted on the bench?

Can Former Politicians Be Trusted on the Bench?This week opposition MP Richard Frederick reacted predictably to a scathing Labour Party press release that seemed, for more than one reason, to declare him of unfit character to represent the Castries Central constituency, not the least among them that he had recently been found guilty of dangerous driving, fined $2000 and his license temporarily suspended.

In his equally vitriolic
same-day response the thrice-elected Frederick reminded readers that he and the magistrate in the cited case had once occupied opposing seats in parliament.

No need to elaborate. Depending on which side of the political fence they resided,  Saint Lucians could be relied upon to read into the MP’s statement of fact whatever was most convenient: it is hardly the world’s best kept secret that here the popular expectation is that opposing politicians remain lifetime enemies. Indeed, the people demand it!

No surprise, then, if some should believe Frederick never stood a chance of a fair hearing in a courtroom presided over by a former SLP front-liner and attorney general with whom Frederick had had several political clashes and, for all they imagined, still had more than a score or two still left to settle.

None of the above is to suggest the magistrate Velon John had been anything but fair in his judicial assessment of the evidence before him—and the consequences he handed down. Indeed my observations are intended to say a lot about us as a suicidal people irreversibly divided by petty small-island politics. That the Labour Party had chosen mindlessly to cash in on the particular court verdict, considering the principals, certainly did nothing to ease our deep-rooted suspicions and our attitude to the Caribbean Court of Justice as a replacement for the Privy Council.

It is also worth suggesting that if Frederick believed Velon John might not treat him fairly he could’ve tried by legal means to have him removed from the particular case and replaced by an ostensibly unbiased magistrate. Frederick took his chances with an adjudicator with whom he had often crossed political swords and, well, you reap what you sow. That’s just how the cookie crumbles!

Come to that, what a plus for justice being seen to be done in the particular circumstances, had Velon John of his own volition recused himself.

I mention the above having just read the recent judgment handed down by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court in the matter of a petition brought by two members of the Dominica UWP requiring two results in the 2009 general elections be declared null and void. To be more precise, that the island’s prime minister and his education minister ought not to have been candidates in the general elections on the basis they held French passports and were under allegiance to France on Nomination Day. The preliminary trial found in favor of the respondents and the petitioners appealed.
(See above story).

One of the appeal court judges was Mario Michel, former deputy prime minister of Saint Lucia, for several years an aggressively loyal member of the Saint Lucia Labour Party. When he was widely expected to be elected party leader, Michel had resigned from government in 2006—shortly after the Labour Party constitution was modified to permit Kenny Anthony to continue simultaneously as prime minister and leader of the party for more than two terms.

In his time as a politician Michel had been especially famous for chastising George Odlum at every opportunity, never permitting him to forget his leading role in the fall of the 1979-82 Allan Louisy and Winston Cenac SLP administrations.

Michel had also piloted the infamous press-gagging Section 361, and also the law that denied bail for certain offences—including rape. Especially instructive today are his stunning introductions of both bills in parliament, and his aggressive later defenses of the related laws passed by a Labour majority. Both Section 361 and the so-called no-bail law were finally repealed on the basis of their unconstitutionality!

Judge Michel and Dominica’s prime minister had both served as education ministers of their respective territories, during the same period. In short, Michel had far more in common with the respondent-politicians in the Dominica matter than with the petitioners.

As it turned out, two of the three ECSC jurists denied the appeal, Michel being one of the assenting duo. Here, now, some of his comments on the highly controversial case that even now in Dominica is a hot potato destined to go before the Privy Council, or so I’ve been informed:

“Election petitions appear to be becoming a regular feature of general elections in the Commonwealth Caribbean, with unsuccessful election candidates now bringing election petitions with increasing frequency. While the fling of an election petition is the right of every election candidate, those seeking elective office should be careful not to transform their electoral contests from the political platforms to the law courts unless there is a good basis for challenging the outcome of an election. To file election petitions as a matter of course, or whenever there is a close result, or there is some inconsequential or unprovable allegation of impropriety is inimical to our democratic process which is based on the first past the post and not the first into court.

“I hasten to add this comment is not intended to cast aspersions on the appellants in this case or on the petitioner in any particular election petition currently before our courts, but it is intended as a general admonition to election candidates to avoid using the courts to prolong their election contests by filing unmeritorious election petitions.

“By way of a postscript I want to add further that maybe the increased prevalence of election petitions and the uncertainties which they generate in the outcome of general elections in the Commonwealth Caribbean may be stemmed by extending the rule-making powers of the appropriate officers of the Supreme Courts in relation to election petitions, so that election rules may be made which clearly set out the basis for instituting election petitions and procedure to institute and prosecute them and penalize petitioners by cost awards for instituting and pursuing unmeritorious election petitions.”

Isn’t it left to the courts to decide finally the merits of a petition? Is there even the smallest danger that some might hear in the judge’s admonition what he never intended to convey? Might it have been more judicious of the former Labour Party firebrand to have kept to himself his politically loaded comments?

Meanwhile, in Saint Lucia two UWP petitions filed almost two years ago in relation to the last general elections remain undetermined. Especially interesting will be the choice of trial judge and ECSP panel, should the matter make its way to our court of appeal!

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