By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
BAHAMAS Bar Association President Kahlil Parker has called on the government to move with “all convenient speed” in appointing a new substantive chief justice, claiming that it isn’t right for the third branch of government to be “headless indefinitely”.
Mr Parker, in an interview with reporters on the sidelines of a special Supreme Court sitting to honour the life of the late Chief Justice Stephen Isaacs, said the government’s appointment of chief justices does not come on a “whim”, but is rather a “duty” mandated to execute.
Meanwhile, Wayne Munroe, QC suggested that based on the delay in confirming Justice Isaacs as substantive chief justice, the legal community should begin to consider having the political directorate removed from the process of appointing of chief justices, as well as the appointment of Queen’s Counsel.
Mr Munroe further chastised the Minnis administration for the many months it took for it to appoint someone to the role of chief justice, charging that the long wait was not due to the government needing any “reasonable” amount of time to do so, but because of an outright "delay", which he said is "frowned upon" in law.
Justice Isaacs was formally appointed to the substantive post in July, after having served as acting chief justice since December. Two weeks later, in what was described as “cruel irony” by Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis, the senior judge died at the age of 63 after reportedly battling prostate cancer.
Prior to Justice Isaacs’ death, the government’s delay in appointing a chief justice yielded heavy criticism from the legal community, especially given Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ hardline position that he would not be forced to appoint a chief justice, and that he was not concerned about losing political capital over it.
Mr Parker in particular castigated the prime minister over the issue, telling The Nassau Guardian in April that Dr Minnis has a “tremendous misapprehension” of the constitutional provisions concerning the appointment of a chief justice, and that he did not appear to firmly grasp the Constitution as a whole.
And in February, an internal letter to members of the judiciary from Senior Magistrate Derence Rolle-Davis characterized the failure to fully confirm the vacant post as a “blatant attack on the judiciary”. Also at the time, Mr Munroe and fellow QC’s Alfred Sears and Maurice Glinton all told The Tribune that Dr Minnis’ appointment of Justice Isaacs as acting chief justice should be remedied immediately.
In August, Press Secretary Anthony Newbold said Senior Justice Vera Watkins will serve as acting chief justice until a successor to the substantive post is named, and added that Dr Minnis will take his time in making the decision.
“We will move no quicker than (Dr Minnis) thinks is necessary as long as the system continues to function the way it ought to,” Mr Newbold said at the time.
While speaking during the special sitting on Friday, Mr Parker noted that Justice Isaacs would have had “one lamentation” with the ceremony: that it was “presided over by an acting chief justice” in Justice Watkins.
“I would say that there’s never enough that can be said about the constitutional underpinnings of our democracy,” Mr Parker told reporters after the hearing. “So I think that at the end of the day I will be tireless in my championing of that cause. It is not right that the third branch of government is headless indefinitely. It is not a whim, it is a duty.
When asked if he feels the government will move more expeditiously this time around, Mr Parker said: “I expect that they will move, not swiftly but with all convenient speed as they are mandated to do. It is a duty.”
Meanwhile, Mr Munroe, in heralding the “stellar legal career” Justice Isaacs enjoyed, chastised the government for the “delay” in appointing a chief justice.
“In law, the law requires you to take reasonable time to do things,” he said. “So people need a reasonable time to prepare their defense. But the law frowns on delay. Delay defeats justice. And so in my view, this wasn’t a matter of the political directorate taking a reasonable time to make an appointment, but delay.
“Why? Because this was a judge who had been on a judicial path from the very bottom to the top. He had decided cases, he was sitting in the court of appeal, so it was not a matter that you needed reasonable time or that you took reasonable time, it was a matter that you delayed. And delay is frowned on.”
Mr Munroe further suggested that based on what happened to Justice Isaacs, lawyers should start a conversation about removing the political directorate from matter involving the appointment of both chief justices and Queen’s Counsel.
“We have a prime minister who is set to do it who isn’t even a lawyer, so there’s nothing that qualifies a politician to know who should be a QC,” Mr Munroe said. “Judges are more qualified to say who should be a QC than the political directorate. And definitely in the appointment of a chief justice.”
Notwithstanding Messrs Parker and Munroe’s remarks, Friday’s sitting was replete with positive commentary from other judges about Justice Isaacs as a “patient” and “humble” man who performed his duties without compliant, in spite of his health issues.
ACJ Watkins noted that although Justice Isaacs was a “learned” man, and that he had the opportunity to “walk with proverbial kings” throughout his career, he “never lost the common touch” and was courteous to one and all.
“He knew how to walk down the corridors of the court houses and greet every member of staff that he met with a pleasant ‘good morning’ or a courteous ‘hello’ no matter what their station in life was,” she said. “Yet he knew how to keep the common touch by giving warm, friendly and reassuring smiles to those members of staff who are responsible for the lowliest of tasks.
“He did not engage in the practice of walking past members of staff and not greeting them or pretending that he did not see them. He was cordial to one and all”.
ACJ Watkins further stated that Justice Isaacs fought a “valiant battle” with his health issues, while simultaneously continuing to fulfill his obligations as acting chief justice of the Supreme Court. This he did up to the point of being hospitalized, which was one week before he passed away, ACJ Watkins said.
“He knew he was gravely ill, yet he did not complain,” she said. “He was able to force his heart and every nerve and sinew in his body to fulfill his obligations in the office of acting chief justice and chief justice. His body became frail and he got progressively weaker. He was in a tremendous amount of pain yet—he did not give up. He did not complain.
“He had the will to hold on. He was able to hold on when there was nothing in him—except the will which said to him-‘hold on’.”
Acting Appellate Justice Milton Evans, in giving his remarks, said Justice Isaacs’ career “stands as an example of patience, diligence and dedication to a goal”, and that he understood the importance of “keeping focused on the route chosen even when the road gets bumpy and when obstacles get in the way”.
Justice Evans described the judge as a man who “did not think of himself as so elevated that he could not discuss matters with me who was very much his junior”.
“Stephen would from time to time visit the other judges in chambers just to check on how we were doing,” Justice Evans said. “I can recall him coming to my office on occasions and we would sit and chat. And as I reflect on those occasions I am now aware that during some of those times he would have been dealing with serious health issues. However, that was never the topic of our discussions. Stephen was never a member of the ‘whoa it’s me club’. He performed his work without excuses and never used his illness as a crutch”.