It is not surprising that the issue of the allocation of public housing is front page news once again. What is astonishing is that it is allegations concerning the conduct of the Chief Justice that have put the issue back on the front page—but first, a little recap.
In April 2016, long after town was saying it, the Trinidad Express finally broke the news that approximately 70 media employees or their relatives had been allocated houses over a five-year period having been “recommended” by ministers or their satellites. At that time, I described the situation as the media cookie jar.
Notably, however, there were several wet blanket comments from media interests intended to damp down criticism of the significant conflict of interests between the media’s weighty responsibilities to be impartial in the public interest and its gratitude for political largesse. Moreover, there was not one worthwhile editorial on the subject.
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), however, commendably put out a detached statement on the subject recorded on social media:
“The investigation suggests that these allocations were fast tracked and that journalists might have received priority housing placement from State officials because of their professional influence within the media.
“The implications of this matter are far-reaching and affect the fundamental integrity of newsrooms and their duty to the public interest.”
Two months later, I wrote: “The housing allocation wrongdoing will never be reversed. It suits both political sides to access that lucrative drawer of the repeatedly raided national cash register to fix up relatives and friends, to reward political fidelity regardless of merit, or to unduly influence policemen, journalists and others in the performance of their duties.”
Never, however, could I have imagined that there would be allegations that the Chief Justice or any member of the Judiciary would be involved in “recommending” third parties for housing—let alone, allegedly going further by speaking to officials regarding the applications of third parties for public housing.
Arguably, the line between “recommending” and “interfering” in the due process of allocation of public housing is a mirage. But, in any event, the existence of a practice of significant office-holders getting involved in the allocation of housing provided by the State or State agencies is not applicable to members of the Judiciary. Judges cannot act in this way and be parties to such a practice.
The Judiciary has been placed in a uniquely protected position by the Constitution and must observe the restraint that is necessarily complementary to the enjoyment of the protected tenure of such office. Judges must therefore restrain themselves from conduct which puts them in a position to be or to appear to be beholden to anyone, or, in local parlance, have files capable of being ‘buss’ if they do not return some favour.
The jumping of housing queues is a particularly sensitive subject and one traditionally enmeshed in political patronage. The Judiciary cannot be—or be seen to be—part of the contact system.
Every word of the MATT release quoted above may be applied with equal force to the Judiciary’s getting involved with State agencies in the provision of public housing for third parties. That is against the public interest.
The Judiciary is the principal among the “guardrails” against the politicians and other public officials when they try to run fair play and honesty off the straight and narrow road on which those requirements of a civilised society should travel.
The concept of the “guardrails” of democracy was the subject of a commentary by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Like several conservative commentators who have no time for Trump, Krauthammer has welcomed the guardrails of democracy holding fast “against the careening recklessness of this Presidency.”
The Chief Justice has not answered the allegations. Perhaps he won’t bother even if the allegations multiply. He never even begged pardon for the judicial appointments fiasco known as the Marcia mess.
He knows that so-called civil society and most lawyers are gutless and we all know that politicians thrive when institutions are weak.
Let’s be clear, however, that once respect for the judicial guardrails is destroyed, we will all pay dearly.