On Friday, Stabroek News printed the full text of a letter sent by Justice Franklin Holder to Chief Justice (ag) Yonette Cummings-Edwards, giving an account of the behaviour of Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams in his court on March 23. It surely must count among the most extraordinary letters any judge in our system of justice has sent in modern times. The hearing involved suspended Chairman of the Public Service Commission Carvil Duncan, whose lead counsel was a former Attorney General in the PPP/C government, Anil Nandlall.
Without going into the full details of events as related by the Judge, suffice it to say that Justice Holder said he “took umbrage” at Mr Williams’s tone and the insinuation that “the Court was being selective in recording the evidence.” It got worse: Justice Holder described the AG as standing in the well of the court, and in a “truculent manner” responding “that the last person who told him what he should not say, was a Magistrate and he is now dead.” It was what Mr Williams said next, however, which caused the Judge to rise from the Bench and go into his Chambers without adjourning the matter. “I could say what I want to say and when I want to say it,” the AG had said to him; “I have always been like that.”
This was not how Mr Williams described the exchange, although he did mention being cited for contempt by a magistrate following which he went on to say: “And … since then I have always been very particular about what I say to the courts … and I said coincidentally that magistrate is dead now.” Furthermore, he curiously blamed Mr Nandlall’s interruptions during the course of the case for what had occurred: “Nandlall is the one who caused the problem for three hours, and the engagement between the learned judge and myself was merely three minutes.” And in case anyone is puzzled as to how that would be possible, they must understand that the Minister of Legal Affairs has created a brand new psychological diagnosis called “transferred frustration” to explain the phenomenon. It may yet secure him a citation in the psychology textbooks, although surely not in the legal ones.
That aside ‒ and for the sake of argument accepting the AG’s version ‒ it is surely to treat a Judge with utter contempt to suggest first, that he cannot keep control in his courtroom so that Mr Nandlall is allowed to disrupt proceedings with apparent impunity; and second, that he has been so affected by that behaviour that he then takes it out on the irreproachable Mr Williams. If nothing else, it does not carry the patina of even-handedness. The Minister’s own account of what transpired, therefore, does not relieve him of the accusation of “contemptuous behaviour” towards the Judge; quite the contrary in fact. In addition, it should be noted that in his letter Justice Holder denied that Mr Nandlall had, in the AG’s words, “all morning … [been] disrespecting you.”
The whole episode was first brought to public attention by Mr Nandlall himself, who homed in on what he regarded as an implied threat in Mr Williams’s words about the magistrate who was now dead. Justice Holder in his letter does not give indication that he interpreted the statement in this way, possibly, although not necessarily, because it could be subject to more than one construction. The mainstream one would be that having died, the magistrate to whom reference is being made is not among the current complement, although had the AG used the conjunction ‘but’ rather than ‘and’, this meaning ‒ if that was what was intended ‒ would have been clearer. As it is, he seems to have been aware of the problematic nature of the phraseology, and the word “coincidentally” appears in his own recounting of events.
While Justice Holder did not cite Mr Williams for contempt at the time this incident occurred, he is not prepared to allow it to pass. He wrote: “I recognise Mr. Williams’ behaviour as I have related to be insulting, disrespectful, and calculated to scandalise and lower the authority of the Court in the face of the Court.” He went on to conclude that he was “not prepared to sit to hear Mr. Williams as an Attorney-at-Law in any matter whatsoever, unless he makes a genuine and meaningful apology to my satisfaction, in open Court, both to me and to the Members of the Bar, since they too were scandalized by his despicable conduct.” The AG did not seem altogether seized of the seriousness of what had happened in court, and when asked, told reporters, “I don’t know about apology.” He then went on to say that he would work along with the Judge to sort the matter out.
If it is that he really does refuse to apologise, Mr Ralph Ramkarran in his column this week (page 7) goes through the legal consequences which potentially could follow. But there is another dimension to this story which has nothing to do with the judicial system, and that is the political one. As AG, Mr Williams holds a critical post in government; in fact he is the government’s legal advisor and represents it in very important cases as well as being Minister of Legal Affairs. As AG too, he is also the head of the Guyana Bar. Such a high-profile post requires impeccable professional conduct, something which even before this latest incident in court on March 23, had proved somewhat elusive for Mr Williams.
Mr Nandlall has said that Mr Williams is unfit for office; however, while he is perfectly in order to criticize the AG’s behaviour in court, it is not for him to make the political judgement of fitness for the post, considering his own serious failing during the period when he was AG, but still chose not to resign. One cannot help but wonder, however, if within the government itself there is not a great deal of unease about some of the AG’s public utterances, in addition to this latest matter; after all, there are lawyers in the Cabinet, and both the PNC and the AFC have recourse to a large pool of legal competence for opinions.
One thing which has to be said about the old PNC governments, and that is that the post of AG was filled by men of great legal expertise, some of whom were also scholars and diplomats of international standing. While it is true that neither APNU nor the AFC can call on anyone at that level any longer, there are still lawyers of ability around who conduct themselves with thoughtfulness and courtesy, and treat the courts and the judges with respect. It is not as if there is absolutely no one available who might not be suitable to be considered for the post of the highest law officer in the land.
When the President was asked about the AG’s conduct in Justice Holder’s courtroom on March 23, he responded that before he could pronounce on it he wanted to hear Mr Williams’s account of events. As Mr Ramkarran points out today, he will have no say in the legal aspects, but that said, of course he has full control in the political department. While he alone can appoint and ‘dis-appoint’ ministers of government, the President may feel constrained by party politics in this instance; after all, Mr Williams is also Chairman of the PNC. He would be advised to understand, however, that these incidents not only bring the AG into disrepute, they also bring the government into disrepute as well as the parties which make up that government.
Mr Williams is a man of great energy accompanied by an ebullient style. Not all posts, however, lend themselves to such robustness, and perhaps he himself should give consideration to whether his particular talents might not find greater expression and be less shackled in some other field of endeavour.