My deceased mother, Celia, had a number of priceless expressions. Many of them applied to persons who got “too big for their boots.”
Getting too big for your own boots could be a gradual process. When it happened overnight she discerned that it was an immediate attack of “position-itis”—a condition which afflicted those who found themselves in high positions and thereafter threw away all respect for the opinions of others.
Had she been following recent events she would have been appalled at the dismissive attitudes of public officials.
These have been demonstrated by the authoritarian assertions—made in response to blundering by bodies like the Judicial and Legal Services Commission ( JLSC)—that there is nothing more to say. Or like the President of the Olympic Committee, saying that his organisation will not be “distracted”, even while admitting that his organisation exercised its powers in a one-sided manner.
Position-itis has grown widespread in Trinidad and Tobago encouraged by the failure of members of public bodies and of so-called civil society to resist or protest abuses of power. In many cases abuses are condoned, accompanied by invitations to the cocktail circuit although those extending the invitations are ill-speaking their invitees behind their backs.
We have also taken so-called protocol to a full extreme. Officials arrive with flashing lights and fanfares to be ushered to interminable rows of VVIP seats, also reserved for their entourages. These officials arrive almost like the mythological Zeus who descended disguised as a shower of golden rain when he went to have his way with Princess Danae.
All this pomp and deference are fertiliser for attacks of position-itis from which has flowed the repeated spectacle of the occupiers of public office—including top offices—bringing themselves, the institutions which they serve, and the country, into disrepute.
By contrast, last week was a good week in respect of admirable action outside the norms of greed and indifference. My comrade Reggie Dumas was vindicated by the Privy Council’s decision that he could challenge a decision of the President of the Republic in defined circumstances, a trail blazed by former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Nizam Mohammed, in the context of what constitutes fair play by the President.
Secondly, a former President of the Senate, Mr Michael Williams—in a letter to the editor of the Trinidad Express—called on the JLSC to release the report on the charges of misconduct on which a judicial appointee had been placed.
Thirdly, in a crowded week, Mr Devant Maharaj—seeking to continue the tradition of public interest litigation—instructed his attorneys to challenge the constitutionality of the already grievously wounded JLSC.
Devant Maharaj is a polarising figure, as are some others who first raised the alarm about the recent round of judicial appointments. As a public commentator, I try to separate the message from the messenger. I would advise thin-skinned public officials to do the same.
En passant, why did the State waste public funds by appealing against the Court of Appeal’s decision made in favour of Reggie Dumas’ challenge?
It was already well established that a statutory ouster clause—which provides that a decision shall not be called into question or an officeholder shall not be answerable in a court of law—will not prohibit all challenges in Court.
In local parlance, a public official cannot exercise powers that he or she does not have; nor can he or she exercise powers against the standards of fairness recognised by the law.
Did the office of Attorney General yield to hidden pressures to take Dumas the full forensic distance?
The Courts have told two Presidents of the Republic that their decisions can be challenged in the circumstances defined above. The Courts have also decided cases against senior Judges, who made decisions unfairly or tainted by a perception of bias.
Where does the JLSC think it is heading? No humility shown, not even a little beg pardon.
After first trying to bully its way out of the problems it created by appointing the former Chief Magistrate without conducting its own independent due diligence, the pressure of public opinion forced the Commission to make a lengthy statement.
Sadly the statement, issued on Tuesday last, began with an apparent dig—evidencing a lack of contrition—which devalued it at the outset. Having conceded that public concern was justifiable, why describe that concern as “unfortunate?”
The only misfortunes coming out of the impugned appointment were those that the JLSC inflicted on the litigants whose cases were left unfinished and on the reputation of the administration of justice.
Meanwhile the JLSC’s statement has evaded some obvious questions such as did the former Chief Magistrate actually resign from that office and by reference to what process and what legal provisions was the decision—apparently subsequently put into a state of suspension—made to “restore” or “return” her to the Magistracy?