By Raffique Shah
September 20, 2009
Trinidad and Tobago News Blog
AS I listened to Chief Justice Ivor Archie deliver his address at the opening of the new Law Term, I was transported back in time-42 years ago, to be precise. The CJ must have been a little past toddler stage then, and most of his fellow-judges not yet born or barely older. It was my first Carnival after two-years of military training in frigid England. As a “carnival peong” who had missed out on Sniper’s classic “Portrait of Trinidad” (1966), I jumped straight into however many fetes I could “play myself”. And the tune we partied most to? An infectious double-entendre titled “Archie Buck Dem Up” by a little known (for me, anyway) Bajan group called the Merrymen.
The song-lyrics corrupted by fete-crazed Trinis-was not the only “hot number” in 1967 and ’68. Rose had Ramsingh “reeling he hose” to put out “Fire, Fire!” Kitch took the Road March with “Sixty-Seven”. Cypher won the monarch title with “If de priest could play”, and the Phallic Prince of Mayaro, Zandolie, was rather tame with “Man Family”. All of these overshadowed two other classics, “Education” by Sparrow, and Baker’s “God Bless Our Nation”.
But I digress. It was CJ Archie’s analytical assault on the Government’s draft constitution that set me thinking of the song and the Merrymen. Really, Archie tore apart the framers and promoters of the proposed constitution on the issue of the separation of powers and the inviolable independence of the judiciary. He correctly lamented the “muted response” thus far to the draft constitution. Frankly, people like me are so disgusted with those in authority arrogating unto themselves divine powers, we choose instead to sit on the sidelines and watch them take the country down the drain.
People get the government they deserve, some wise fool once said. He or she forgot to add opposition parties and politicians generally, to this maxim. To what end do we protest, M’lud? Your Lordship will have listened to the wisdom of those who argued that Government use the oil-and-gas windfall to improve the country’s infrastructure, to mitigate if not eliminate poverty, to spend more on education and diversifying the economy than on prestige projects, and to put aside much of our unexpected revenues for the proverbial rainy day. We showed why the rapid rail project was not worth the mind-track that conceived it-and we suggested cheaper, workable alternatives.
It’s not that we don’t care about our country or about the independence of the Judiciary. But I dare say a speech coming from you, M’lud, carries far more weight than the collective voices of all columnists and commentators put together. Immediately you spoke, the Government listened. In fact, Prime Minister Manning has set up a ministerial committee to prepare a response to your observations. Had I or any of my colleagues made similar observations, nary a word would have come from Cabinet-except, perhaps, some snide remarks about “obstructionists”.
But they can’t treat you, Mi’lud, or your esteemed brothers-and-sisters-on-the-bench, they way they treat us. They know that you carry weight, that your observations came after much thought, that you have awakened the public to lurking dangers that threaten our rights and freedoms. This country will not stand for the executive castrating the judiciary or any other independent body. People will take only so much. After that, they will revolt. Five minutes spent in a polling booth once every five years, as the Rev Roy Nehall said back in 1971, cannot be democracy!
Democracy is an ongoing process, one of consultation with the masses, of listening to vox populi, of sifting good ideas and incorporating them into governance. Mr Manning may well argue that government needs to insulate the population from a runaway judiciary. I agree with that. But I also proffer that we, the people, need to be protected from a runaway government. Except for some aberrations, the Judiciary has proved to be a stabilising factor when politicians become intoxicated with power.
So rest assured, Mi’lud, we shall be there to defend the independence of the Judiciary, just as we shall, as the need arises, point out to you unjust decisions made by your magistrates and judges. Judges are not above the law, nor are they empowered to administer justice with a jaundiced eye. Some magistrates and judges take this “lordship” thing quite literally: they take a perverse delight in lording it over lesser mortals. That, too, we shall not stand for.
On a final note, I see M’lud quoted extensively from America’s Declaration of Independence in arguing the case for separation of powers. That is fine-the so-called Founding Fathers did have some good ideas. But you missed out an important component of that declaration. It is this (and I quote): “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Here endeth for the moment.
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