President David Granger yesterday unilaterally chose retired justice James Patterson, 84, to be Chairman of GECOM, rejecting a third list that had been submitted by Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo and plunging the country into its worst political crisis since APNU+AFC came to power in 2015.
Patterson was last night sworn in as the new Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) hours after he was first contacted by Granger and just after Jagdeo declared a campaign of non-cooperation with the government over the decision. It would appear that the hasty swearing in was held to avoid a legal challenge. Patterson will be 87 when the next general elections are due in 2020.
“Being desirous of fulfilling the requirements of the constitution and given the need to appoint a Chairman …and in light of the failure of the Leader of the Opposition to present me with a list that was not unacceptable I have decided that it would be in the public’s interest to resort to the proviso in the Constitution Article 161 (2) which permits the President to act independently to appoint a person in the judicial category to be Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission, that is a person who is presumptively fit and proper. I have accordingly appointed Justice James Patterson,” Granger told reporters during a ceremony at State House which did not see any appearance of Patterson’s relatives or friends or members of coalition partner, the Alliance for Change (AFC). The ceremony got underway just after 8:30 pm, almost two hours after the Ministry of the Presidency sent out an urgent media advisory.
The swearing in of Patterson came two and a half hours after Granger met with Jagdeo informing him of the rejection of the list and his selection of Patterson.
On August 25, Jagdeo submitted a list comprising Joe Singh, a retired Guyana Defence Force Major General, who previously served as GECOM Chairman; former long-serving magistrate Krisndat Persaud; attorneys Teni Housty and Sanjeev Datadin; pilot and biodiversity advocate Annette Arjoon-Martins; and Adventist pastor and agriculturalist Onesi La Fleur.
GECOM has been without a Chairman since Dr Steve Surujbally resigned in February this year. The search for a replacement in keeping with the Constitution began late last year.
In brief remarks after issuing the instrument of appointment, Granger urged all Guyanese to support the constitution of the full commission so that “we can get on with the business of conducting Local Government elections and General and Regional elections in this country”.
He said too that Jagdeo, during a meeting which started around 6 pm, was informed that the third list was unacceptable within the meaning of the constitution. He said that he paid careful attention to the ruling of the acting Chief Justice Roxane George in arriving at his decision to appoint Patterson.
An application was made to the Constitutional court by businessman Marcel Gaskin for declaratory orders on the meaning of Article 161(2), which provides for the appointment of the Chairman, in hopes of it providing clarity for the selection process. Justice George delivered her oral ruling in July and her written ruling last month.
Contacted shortly after the swearing in ceremony had ended, AFC Executive member Khemraj Ramjattan appeared shocked that party leader Raphael Trotman did not put in an appearance and that Harmon was the only government official present. Stabroek News, despite efforts, was unable to make contact with Trotman.
Ramjattan, however, said he was aware that Patterson was going to be appointed. “I don’t know more than that except that the president did call the leader of the party,” he said.
Asked if he agreed with Patterson’s appointment, Ramjattan said, “I certainly would agree with the choice yes because it is the president’s choice and he didn’t find it acceptable the other names and he found that one acceptable. That’s my opinion on the issue.”
The government will be criticized for appointing Patterson who is 84 years old given that persons holding several constitutional offices were earlier this year sent home because of their age. Among them was former Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority Justice Cecil Kennard who was in his late 70s.
Granger did not directly justify the appointment of the aged Patterson when asked. He stressed that government had to search after depending on Jagdeo for the last ten months to come up with a list that is not unacceptable. “We have been searching as well and we feel that given his experience, he is a former Chief Justice of Grenada, he has long judicial service and we feel he is a fit and proper person. So it is important for the reason I have mentioned that we bring this search to an end and we get on with the business of governing Guyana.” Asked why the highly favoured and qualified Singh was not chosen, Granger responded, “I am not prepared to discuss the individual qualities of the nominees. Taken as a whole the list was unacceptable and that is all I need to say in accordance with the constitution.”
The President said that Patterson was an excellent choice given his long judicial service as well as integrity, impartiality and independence. “I think he is a person who is independent minded, he is impartial and I think he has all the qualities which we require,” he said.
Granger acknowledged that he never approached Patterson prior to the receipt of the third list and has not dragged out the process. Patterson would later inform reporters that he only became aware of his selection hours before the swearing-in ceremony. “A few hours ago …I was never approached prior to tonight,” he said when asked when he became aware that he was the chosen person. He went on to explain that Granger called him, made the offer and he accepted.
Granger stated that his search for a fit and proper person commenced after he realized that the list before him was unacceptable and that “we could not go forward with that list. I would say from September over the four, five weeks we have been searching.”
Justice George ruled that the President is required to give reasons for deeming the names on the list as unacceptable.
However, Granger, when asked if he plans to give reasons why he rejected the third list responded, “I have searched the constitution and the only reason I found …is that I am not obliged to appoint anybody who is not fit and proper.” He dismissed suggestions that the non-disclosure of reasons is not in keeping with the democratic principles. “I believe that it is in accordance with the constitution,” he stressed.
Granger added that after scrutinizing the third list he realized that it was unacceptable and he began a search for his own nominee in keeping with the constitution.
“I realized at that stage that after the submission of three lists that there was an intention on the part of the Leader of the Opposition to submit a list that is not going to be acceptable.” He said that at one stage he considered approaching the matter differently that is, the establishment of the high level committee but “I don’t have the authority to go outside of the constitution to initiate any sort of bipartisan search. It is entirely the Leader of the Opposition’s responsibility and it would be unconstitutional of me to intrude on that process. He must do so and he has not done so over a period of over nine months.”
The committee was to be established if the third list was found to be unacceptable. “There is nothing in the constitution which authorizes me to do that and it would have been an error for me to proceed in that direction,” he stressed.
He explained that during the meeting with Jagdeo he indicated “quite clearly” that he had a candidate in mind and said that Jagdeo was provided with Patterson’s Curriculum Vitae.
Patterson told the media that though the job may be demanding both he and the president think he is up to the task. Asked about the criticism of his age, he said that the president doesn’t have an issue with his age and he pointed to the fact that one of the most fertile intellects in law, is US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A mere four months separate their ages. “She would do 20 pushups at my age so I don’t think it matters…,” he said.
Asked if he can cope with the rigours of an elections period for 24 or 36 hours without little or no sleep, he responded, “I have been a student at the bar you know, and that is more damaging intellectually and otherwise than politics.”
He urged politicians to make an effort to fight for the unity of the country even as he described the state of affairs as “disheartening”. He was that he was never skeptical about accepting the position, pointing out that as a judge “you encounter more difficult situations, more trying than this.” He said that his opinion of why he is the best person for the job does not matter. “It is the selector’s opinion that matters and he thinks that I am the best person,” he said.
He could not say what his immediate priorities are.