A GUY'S VIEW: The importance of judicial independence
Of late it has been difficult not to think of events in the United States of America. Usually, Barbadians pay attention to events in that country because most of us have friends and relatives who live there, but there is much greater concern now.
The country which runs around the world telling people that they either approve or disapprove of their elections, as it suits American interests, now finds itself in the hands of a ‘leader’ who seems bent on taking his great country down with him. And he believes that he has the courts to assist him.
I listened to a serious commentary on the consequences of the appointment of President Trump’s latest nominee to the US Supreme Court. It was numbing. As great a concern as any other aspect of that exercise was the enabling of his party in what they all believe to be a deliberate padding of the court to suit conservative interests.
The view was posited that it would throw out of balance the makeup of the court, leaning it too heavily in favour of conservatism. My issue is not with what constitutes conservative interests. Americans have the right to pursue whatever norms fit into their culture and way of life. What is bothersome is the naked political agenda that informs who is selected to sit on the court.
The analyst explained that this appointment would see the overturning of important decisions and change the face of life in America. Since America forces its policy preferences on non-nuclear countries, the effects of this may be felt around the world.
Lay persons probably see the appointment of a judge as a purely legal matter, not recognising the down-the-line consequences. In a country as powerful as America, those consequences may be dire.
It was recently announced that Patterson Cheltenham QC, will be the next Chief Justice of Barbados. It is not usually thought necessary in Barbados for us to have the considerations which are common in the US on the appointment of a judge at the highest level.
Although the silence of the population is now enforced by fear and the total coopting of all strains of formal media, I am sure that this has not informed the lack of dissent for this decision. Fortunately, Mr. Cheltenham is a candidate that would have been acceptable to either political party, once non-political considerations informed the decision.
When news broke that Sir Marston Gibson would vacate the office of Chief Justice, a heavy cloak of uncertainty descended on many persons as they wondered about his replacement. Many breathed a sigh of relief when it became known that his replacement would be Mr. Cheltenham. In this case, it was more a question of the suitability of the appointee and not who appointed him.
At a personal level, I had enough confidence in Mr. Cheltenham to have him represent my interest in his capacity as an advocate at the bar. Further, because I trusted his scholarship and his integrity, I engaged him as a consultant. I would now have to take leave of my senses to oppose his appointment to head the local judiciary because of the source of his appointment. I do not have those bones within me.
In time, the evidence will prove me right or wrong, but I believe I am right in saying that Barbadians can repose confidence in his fairness, even when matters concerning the Government’s interest come before him. Unlike America, this is consistent with our tradition.
The English tradition believes that judges, mere men and women off the bench, take on the best principles of the indispensable need for objectivity, fairness and a lack of bias, regardless of personal interest. Of course, the appearance of bias must be guarded against, but the brothers and sisters of the bench are in no doubt about the stern stuff of which English judges are made.
In a small jurisdiction like Barbados, one must believe that our judges are made of that high quality, or else some of us may never wish to appear before some courts. Whatever our divisions, the people who staff our courts and generally function in all areas of our judicial system, cannot be part of a tainted group. This would make life in this tiny country unbearable.
It is people like Mr. Cheltenham who keep the flame of that noble tradition burning. We all have our detractors: that is embedded in our culture, but I am in no doubt that the vast majority of those who practise before the bar and have some knowledge of his work and character, have full confidence in Cheltenham’s ability to properly discharge the duties of Chief Justice. As we watch developments in America, we can give thanks for our local judicial system.