Govt to stay but with some limitations - judge
PNC says decision flies in face of reason
By William Walker
January 27, 2001
Justice Claudette Singh has ordered that the PPP/Civic government can remain in office until new elections are held but with some limitations. It was a dramatic end to a three-year saga in her court which challenged the validity of the government installed based on the results of the controversial 1997 general elections.
In response a defiant PNC/Reform press release called the orders a travesty which "fly in the face of reason and justice... The judge's ruling does not legitimize the PPP regime. It remains illegal and the PNC Reform will treat it so."
The ruling came after a two-hour meeting in the morning between the lawyers in the election petition and Justice Singh in a failed effort to hammer out a last-minute agreement. Stabroek News understands that lawyers for the opposition had conceded that the government could remain in power but were pushing for much more severe limitations than the judge ultimately ordered.
Justice Singh finally addressed the court at 2 pm and started by stressing that "I have no jurisdiction to order the President or the government to demit office." She repeated her previous finding that the Voter ID card legislation was found unconstitutional and thus the 1997 elections were not held in accordance with the law. She therefore upheld the petition which had been brought by Esther Perreira. In her ruling on January 15, 2001 Justice Singh had said she could not uphold the petition on the grounds that the results would have been different. To do this, she said, would have been to venture into the realm of speculation.
Because of the consequences of this invalidity on the executive, parliament and all laws passed since 1997, Singh advised that in an act of necessity, to uphold the rule of law and to avoid a constitutional vacuum, the government is to remain in office and the National Assembly is still in session only by the order of the court and with the following two restrictions:
1. No legislation can be passed by the National Assembly except to enable the holding of timely elections by March 31, 2001 (the Elections Commission has already fixed March 19, 2001 as the new date) and matters related to the provisions of the CARICOM-brokered Herdmanston Accord under which the term of the present administration was slashed by two years.
2. The government cannot use the state-owned media for electoral purposes except by way of paid political advertisements.
All legislation passed from December 15th 1997 and deemed invalid because of the flawed elections are now temporarily validated by the court until such time that legislation is passed for their ratification.
Any regional and national acts done since December 1997 are also temporarily ratified and national and regional authorities are similarly temporarily validated.
But in a considerable financial blow to the Elections Commission and perhaps an indication of Justice Singh's findings on the handling of the 1997 elections and the elongation of the three- year petition itself, the judge ordered the Commission to pay all legal costs after taxes but only to the lawyers who appeared in court. This, she said included three senior counsel and two lawyers. And with that she left the bench.
In the midst of what has become a customary invasion of cameras, Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran for one of the respondents, former President Janet Jagan said he was happy with the "wise and just order." With disappointed screams coming from the large crowd outside the court, he said the ruling took into consideration the overriding need to maintain the stability of the country and prevent instability. Ramkarran added that the government lawyers would be appealing the original ruling finding ID card legislation unconstitutional.
But Senior Counsel Rex McKay for PNC leader Desmond Hoyte questioned how the judge could say she had no power to remove the government but then say they could stay on by her consent". The ruling is inconsistent and perverse!" McKay said he was looking forward to the appeal.
Senior Counsel Miles Fitzpatrick who had tried since Tuesday to broker an agreement on behalf of his client Dr Rupert Roopnaraine of the Alliance for Guyana, said the parties had in the morning meeting agreed to 80% of the issues. The opposition lawyers had climbed down from their insistence that the government should demit office and the discussion had only centred on what limitations should be put in place and what name the administration should be called in light of its invalidity. But there had been objections to the title "interim administration of necessity."
Senior Counsel Keith Massiah queried why the judge felt it necessary to add that she had no authority to tell the government to demit office since the lawyers at the discussion before her ruling had never raised the issue.
Dr Roopnaraine said he was relieved that the consequential orders had finally been given as the delay had become a source of tension. It was now the duty of all parties to respect the judge's decision and to move forward on legislation that would make for a legally secure election, he added. At a PPP/C press conference after the ruling, Ramkarran acknowledged that the parties had relied on a judicial ruling having failed to reach a more desired political agreement. But he did not see this as an impediment to passing any amendment to allow for the compulsory use of an ID Card. Such constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority. He hoped that all parties were keen to hold the elections on time and that good sense would prevail.
Ramkarran maintained that the executive and parliament had never been ruled invalid by the judge even though her order had put limits on their activities. He also queried how PNC leader Hoyte could allow his counsel to argue against legislation his own party had voted for in 1997. As for the use of the state media, PPP executive and Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Gail Teixeira drew a distinction between highlighting matters of government that are in the public interest and covering PPP rallies. Ramkarran suggested that the judge had ruled that the state media should not be abused for elections purposes and that this was in line with the present government policy. Hubert Rodney who had been a counsel for the Commission described the judge's decision as courageous and "while some Guyanese might be upset, it is not because it is a bad ruling but rather because they wanted it otherwise."
The PNC/R press release stated that "the hundreds of thousands of Guyanese who placed their hope for justice on the consequential orders that were naturally to flow from Justice Singh's findings ..are understandably incensed. While we fully understand the legal difficulties confronting the learned judge, the Party believes that to allow the powers of the PPP regime to remain practically unfettered not only renders her earlier decision ineffective but establishes a dangerous precedent... The judge and the Court cannot forestall the wishes of the Guyanese people. March 19th will be the day of reckoning."
Observers noted that the judge was likely persuaded by the arguments of Ramkarran and other lawyer Khemraj Ramjattan when they invoked the doctrine of necessity which urges judges to avoid creating constitutional vacuums which could inspire civil disorder.
Justice Singh had openly questioned McKay's arguments for her to appoint a transitional council, asking if that would not bring the court into the political arena. Observers also note that neither the Constitution nor the Validity of Elections (Petition) Act make provision for any such council. The courtroom was full to very uncomfortable capacity by 9 am yesterday morning and some spectators did not dare leave their seats until the judge's ruling five hours later for fear of losing their places.
During lunchtime some members of the crowd standing behind police barricades on Croal Street performed various black magic rituals. But these evidently did not have the desired effect and a wailing not unlike at a funeral rose up as news of the ruling filtered down to the street. Some attorneys went out to explain the order and after half an hour of sporadic chants in support of the PNC, the crowd had dissolved into the hot afternoon.
Following the judge's ruling on January 15, lawyers for both sides were allowed to put forward their positions on what her consequential orders should be. After these arguments, she decided that her orders would be handed down on January 21. On that date, she decided to give the lawyers for the various parties 48 hours to arrive at an out-of-court agreement on pre-election governance failing which she would rule yesterday. The lawyers were unable to agree but on resumption yesterday there was a last-ditch effort which was also unsuccessful and she eventually made her ruling at 1.30 pm.
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