Not learning from recent past in chief justice appointment
Just two weeks after he was sworn in as chief justice, Stephen Isaacs died on August 24, 2018. He was 63.
Isaacs mostly acted as chief justice after Sir Hartman Longley left the post and was appointed president of the Court of Appeal in December 2017.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis was criticized by the opposition, the Bar Association and even a member of his Cabinet for his delay in appointing a chief justice. The prime minister makes the choice.
The constitution does not set a time within which a chief justice must be appointed. However, the judiciary is one of the three branches of government, along with the legislature and executive. The court’s role is to uphold the constitution and laws, and to defend minority rights. It needs a full-time leader.
Not having a substantive officeholder could affect its functioning. An acting chief justice is less likely to take on major reform or the most controversial of administrative decisions, as the individual would not be certain to be in the position to see such decisions through. Hence, with acting chief justices the status quo is likely to remain.
And that’s essentially what the current acting chief justice just said.
“The indisputable fact is that while it may be so that I am sitting in this chair as acting chief justice at this moment, I am not certain as to whether I will be sitting in this chair later on today,” said Acting Chief Justice Vera Watkins during the ceremony to mark the start of the new legal year on Wednesday.
“I am not certain as to whether I will be sitting in this chair tomorrow morning.
“As a result of the tenuous position in which I find myself, it may be a futile exercise to make any long-term plans for the judiciary. As the saying goes, I live or I work from day to day.”
In his address, Bahamas Bar Association President Kahlil Parker added that the “proliferation of acting judicial appointments” had a “deleterious effect on both the perceived and the actual independence of the judiciary, which compromises its ability to function as a check and balance against the other two branches of government”.
Leader of the Opposition Philip Brave Davis said yesterday that the prime minister’s failure to appoint a new chief justice demonstrates his “lack of respect” and appreciation for governance.
“He doesn’t appreciate [and] he doesn’t understand what his role is as the prime minister of this country,” he said.
“It requires him to act and not act on his own time, but act in a manner that conventions and protocols dictate. He has to show respect for the other arms of government. By responding in that way it shows his lack of respect and his lack of appreciation for governance.”
In the process to replace Sir Hartman various candidates should have been vetted by the prime minister. At this stage he should be able to go back to that list and quickly choose the person he thinks best for the role.
The Bahamas is a small place. It’s unlikely that numerous new candidates emerged since the last chief justice search.
Having been attacked the first time, the prime minister should not have given his critics time to mount another assault, accusing him of dithering rather than being decisive. Yet, he has repeated what happened before.
The prime minister is allowing unnecessary controversy to foment. That’s bad politics. He should meet with his closest advisors on legal matters and choose a chief justice.
The right candidate should be honest, hardworking, intelligent and able to manage people. That person should also have ideas about how to make our judiciary better.
The longer the prime minister takes, the more criticism he will receive. This is a fuss that need not be.