By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
BAHAMAS Bar Association President Elsworth Johnson yesterday issued a call to arms to the country’s legal community as he condemned the upcoming parliamentary investigation into Supreme Court Justice Indra Charles’ ruling on the Save The Bays email leak.
Mr Johnson told The Tribune that the “time had come for lawyers in this country worth their salt” to resist any attempt to undermine the independence and objectivity of the judicial system.
He spoke to The Tribune while attending the 2016 International Bar Association conference in Washington. His comments represent the strongest objection to the resolution by Marathon MP Jerome Fitzgerald for the House of Assembly Committee on Privilege to determine whether Justice Charles, and the two lawyers who brought the case, STB Director Fred Smith, QC, and Ferron Bethell, should be held in contempt of the House of Assembly.
Mr Johnson said that challenges to the separation of powers, specifically against the judiciary, were not uncommon and vigorously defended by bar associations around the world.
“The Bar will not stand idly by for anybody who makes a mockery of the system,” he said, “the world is watching, and the world must see our response. Our first industry is tourism, and our second is banking. People want independent and objective judiciary that is only subject to law and not to Parliament.”
Mr Johnson zeroed in on Mr Fitzgerald’s reaction to Justice Charles’ landmark ruling that he infringed on constitutional rights when he tabled the private e-mails of Save The Bays in Parliament, and therefore could not be protected by parliamentary privilege. Mr Fitzgerald told The Nassau Guardian last month: “If I had to do it again, I would do the same thing.”
Mr Johnson said the Marathon MP “set a poor example”, adding that it was the responsibility of the Bar Association to resist attacks on the rule of law through increased public education.
The House committee is expected to stage its first public hearing on Thursday; however, a venue had not been confirmed up to press time.
Mr Johnson’s comments echo concerns levelled by Mr Smith, who recently warned that the committee’s probe could have severe impact to the administration of justice and the rule of law if allowed to investigate matters still under judicial consideration.
Mr Smith argued that Justice Charles’ ruling was linked to several active cases involving the environmental group, including its murder-for-hire case against Peter Nygard, and the constitutional motion. He also listed the four judicial reviews launched against the government and Peter Nygard and Keod Smith before Justice Rhonda Bain, and the judicial review launch by 103 Lyford Cay neighbours of Peter Nygard against the government on the alleged faulty consultation process for works at Nygard Cay.
“The members of this committee must keep firmly in mind that an awesome responsibility has been placed on their shoulders – for the sake of our national reputation, they must defend the principles of good governance, fair administration of justice and the rule of law,” he said.
“If they seek to use these hearings to trample over the territory of the courts, the Bahamas will be branded a lawless society where laws mean nothing, where political power and brute force win the day.
“The international community is watching carefully. We simply must affirm that The Bahamas is not some repressive dictatorship or failed state where the jurisdiction of the courts is casually disregarded, the rule of law tossed aside on a whim; it is a liberal democracy whose good governance is underpinned by a constitution, the guardians of which are the courts. They must be allowed to do their work unfettered by politically motivate intrusions.”
Mr Smith said: “It is constitutionally axiomatic that the judiciary of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas - the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and the Privy Council, resolve civil and criminal matters; not, as (Fox Hill MP) Fred Mitchell alleges, the ‘High Court of Parliament’ which harkens back to a medieval era of monarchical absolutism.”