President sticking with Justice Benjamin as nominee for Chancellor

Despite calls by the legal fraternity for acting Chancellor, Yonette Cummings-Edwards and acting Chief Justice Roxane George to be confirmed in their respective posts, President David Granger yesterday insisted that Belizean Chief Justice (CJ) Kenneth Benjamin will remain his choice for the Chancellor position.

“That is well-known. I took my time in making that decision and I am not prepared to throw it out of the window”, he told reporters at State House when asked why he had a preference for Justice Benjamin over Justice Cummings-Edwards.

Justices Cummings-Edwards and George have been holding their respective acting appointments for more than a year. Questions have been raised as to why Granger did not choose them as his nominees for the substantive posts and why a judge practising and residing abroad was given preference. Justice Cummings-Edwards was nominated by Granger for the CJ post.

Justice Benjamin, a Guyanese by birth as well as an Antiguan citizen spent most of his judicial career practising abroad. According to the Belize Judiciary website, after received his legal training from the University of the West Indies and the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad and Tobago, he returned to Guyana where he practised privately, and served as a Magistrate and the Assistant Judge Advocate for the Guyana Defence Force.

He served on the Court of Appeal in the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court sitting in both St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He also served as the Presiding Judge for the Criminal Division of the High Court in St. Lucia and the High Court  in Antigua, the British Virgin Islands and Grenada.

Prior to his CJ appointment in Belize in 2011, he served as Chief Magistrate in Antigua and Barbuda.

It was a panel comprising retired justices Claudette Singh and James Patterson along with former University of Guyana Vice-Chancellor Harold Lutchman which was set up by Granger that selected Justices Cummings-Edwards and Benjamin for the respective positions. The panel’s task was to recommend the most suitable candidates to Granger after reviewing applications.

The Guyana Bar Association (GBA) and the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers (GAWL) at recent elections called for the confirmation of both women. In the case of the GBA a motion was passed to support the confirmation of the duo.

Yesterday, Granger was adamant that he has acted in accordance with the constitution regarding this matter.

He was asked whether he will support the calls made by the GBA and the GAWL and responded “I am inclined to support the constitution. The constitution makes it clear, very clear…I don’t have the authority to go outside of the constitution”.

When pressed on his reasoning for not nominating both women since they are already occupying those posts, he reiterated “I cannot go outside the constitution…All of my actions have been in accordance with the constitution”.

Asked if he will be sticking with his two nominees, he said “all I am saying is that my actions so far were in accordance with the constitution…I do not have the authority to go outside of the constitution”.

Article 127 (1) of the Constitution states that both sides must agree on the nominees before the substantive appointments can be made. “The Chancellor and the Chief Justice shall each be appointed by the President, acting after obtaining the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition,” it states. Substantive appointments were made over a decade ago. Outgoing Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) President Sir Dennis Bryon and President-Designate Justice Adrian Saunders have publicly expressed concern about this situation.

Granger in January informed Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo of  his choice for the two posts and later the two met on the issue. Jagdeo at that forum asked for some time to deliberate on the matter. On February 7th, 2018, by way of letter, Jagdeo informed Granger of his disagreement with the nominees but did not offer any reason.

Granger subsequently said that he was awaiting legal advice from Attorney General Basil Williams SC on the way forward and later said that because of Jagdeo’s failure to make a counter proposal no further discussion can take place. Jagdeo has said that he will not be making any counter proposal as his position is clearly outlined in his February letter to the president.

Three weeks ago Granger told reporters that he will convene a meeting “very soon” with Jagdeo to discuss pressing matters, including the rejection of the judicial nominees. No meeting has been scheduled thus far.

Asked yesterday about the proposed meeting, Granger said “I have other business to discuss with him… (the) appointment of the Chairman of the Public Service Commission and some other commissions and when parliament gives me those names, I will put all of those on the agenda for the meeting. When we (him and the media) spoke last, I had hoped that they (the names) would have been ready by this time in June”.

Following Jagdeo’s disagreement with the nominees, the Bar Association had warned against unconstitutional appointments of the Chancellor and CJ, stating that stating that it would have embarrassing consequences.  In a statement which appeared to underline its own concerns about the way in which the process was evolving, the Bar Council of the GBA called on the government and the opposition to “break the impasse and arrive at a consensual resolution.”

The Transparency Institute of Guyana Incorporated (TIGI) has since called for the two leaders to show maturity and to utilise compromise to bring an end to the current impasse.

“If the president is not willing to do that and the leader of the opposition is not willing to do that, (then) neither of them are good politicians. That is plain as it is, if they are not willing to compromise at all”, TIGI President Troy Thomas  had said during an interview with this newspaper.

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