What’s behind Joe Harmon’s calls to confirm top judicial appointments?

Dear Editor,
Mr Joseph Harmon, Leader of the parliamentary Opposition party, has called upon President Dr Irfaan Ali to confirm the appointments of Justice Roxane George as Chief Justice and Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards as Chancellor of the Judiciary. The source of that idea was potentially explosive, but it was suppressed before it could create any political conflagration.
It must be noted that the previous Acting Chancellor of the Judiciary Carl Singh and Acting Chief Justice Ian Chang were never confirmed in their respective positions because Mr Joseph Harmon, Mr David Granger and their colleagues blocked those appointments.
Emanating from a political leader who has not taken any viable position on any national issue that has traction with Guyanese, one is forced to wonder if his call was an act of desperation since he might harbour feelings of becoming irrelevant in the political landscape. Mr Joseph Harmon and Mr David Granger had 5 years to appoint Justice Roxane George as Chief Justice and Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards as the Chancellor but chose instead to deviate from that path.
They wanted Justice Kenneth Benjamin of Belize to be appointed the Chancellor. It is my understanding though that the current Guyana Constitution only permits a Judge working within the Guyana judicial system to be so appointed. Therefore, Mr Benjamin would have had to first enter the Guyana Judiciary as a Judge and then proposed as the Chancellor. Mr Granger and Mr Harmon did not follow the requisite process despite insisting that Justice Benjamin “will remain their choice for the top judicial post.”
Given the failed candidacy of Justice Benjamin, there followed no movement from Mr Granger and Mr Harmon to have Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards confirmed in the position of Chancellor. Out of Government, has Mr Harmon made a political somersault in the expectation of gaining some traction and thus arresting his declining political influence?
The perplexity of Mr Harmon’s position is illustrated by his claim that the President occupies office “illegally” but still advocates for the Chief Justice and the Chancellor to be confirmed in their respective positions by the “illegitimate” President. Apart from such glaring dichotomy, there are other factors that make Mr Harmon’s pronouncement highly suspect.
The PNCR/AFC’s elections petition case is scheduled to be heard in April 2021. Is there a subtle message in this sceptical announcement? Guyanese are aware of how the PNCR/AFC Government had been trying to exercise influence (2015-2020) over the Judiciary, even resorting to threats in open court. Was this call by Mr Harmon a calculated move to demonstrate to both Judges that they now favour their confirmation and are also satisfied with their legal credentials? The reader can draw his/her own inference.
Most Guyanese with whom I spoke have wonderful things to say about the acting Chief Justice. However, they are not too excited about the acting Chancellor, who has, through her rulings, demonstrated an inability to rise above politics, as is not the case with the acting Chief Justice. A colleague referred with sarcasm to Justice Yonette Cummings-Edward’s rulings in the GECOM Chairman case and the No-Confidence Motion case (both rulings were overturned by the Caribbean Court of Justice). These cases could hurt her chance of being appointed Chancellor!
Notwithstanding, I recognise that public opinions are shaped by information – both factual and false – and each of these Judges along with other qualified ones, would be given the opportunity to make out their case as to why they are the best candidates. It is reasonable to infer that these positions would be advertised not only to draw a wide pool of qualified candidates but also to secure transparency. Mr Granger and Mr Harmon had made a similar commitment to advertise those positions in 2015 to attract the best-qualified candidates.
The bastion of democracy is the conduct of regular, free, and fair elections. And the bulwark of citizens’ democratic rights and freedoms is an independent Judiciary. It seems logical, therefore, that whichever Judge is chosen for either position must convince the authorities also of their neutrality and independence. While academic qualifications and an impressive record of judicial decisions are important, I believe that the “independence” factor will weigh heavily in the appointment process.

Dr Tara Singh