February 4, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Trinidad and Tobago, a blessed country, has always produced jurists who understood that erudition is always to be preferred over advocacy and that decency and fairness should be privileged over meanness and vindictiveness. Today, our country is witnessing the worst excesses of judicial lawlessness.
From its inception, our bar has been blessed by superior minds. In 1887, when James Anthony Froude, Regis Professor of Oxford visited Trinidad, he referred to Charles Warner, Attorney General until 1870, as one of the finest minds in any part of the British Empire. Maxwell Phillip, QC, Warner's "great rival for intellectual primacy" and acting AG on seven occasions between 1871 and 1888, was equally as exemplary in his legal demeanour and his understanding of his high calling. C L R James noted that he was of the same stamp intellectually as Warner. Each distinguished himself in his society even though they had their detractors.
Sir John Gorrie, an Englishman, was one of our most audacious of attorneys general. A broad constructionist, he interpreted the law to ensure justice for the poor. He understood that laws could be oppressive and could be used by those in power to serve evil purposes. Because he rubbed the ruling class the wrong way, the Colonial Office recalled him to England. When he left the island, a grateful people went down to the Wharf in their thousands to bid him farewell.
The 20th century also produced several distinguished jurists, among whom Sir Hugh Wooding, our first African Chief Justice, stands out for his legal brilliance. Although several persons questioned his commitment to blackness and condemned his womanising, he proved to be an outstanding jurist. Selwyn Ryan notes that "he believed firmly in the dignity of the legal profession". When he was offered a seat in the House of Lords, he turned it down. He realised that "the Black Commonwealth wants and is seeking human understanding, the chance of an equal place in the community of nations". He did not let his personal ambition detract from his national obligations.
Now enters Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, a man for whom personal ambition obliterates nationalist considerations. Today, he presents himself as the most righteous advocate of law and order to whom the dictates of the Constitution are his most sacred trust. Without a scintilla of shame, he uses our schools, our pulpits and our mosques to carry on his propaganda war against the President. Yet, we must not be fooled. His presumed sanctimoniousness is an outer covering that hides his true intent. His 25-year history in the legal profession belies his present metamorphosis. Through it all, Basdeo Panday remains his loyal assistant and enabler.
The questions which surround Maharaj's legal history are instructive. In 1985, he was charged for attempting to pervert the course of justice. He was alleged to have attempted to make an eyewitness to a murder change his story for the payment of money. The case was dismissed after the virtual complainant (and said witness) Mervyn Hall was killed in an alleged shootout during an attempted robbery. Additionally, all the handwritten notes of the Preliminary Inquiry (some of which were authenticated by Hall's signature) disappeared. One Basdeo Panday drew up affidavits, etc, for the witnesses.
In July 1988, Maharaj was again arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder. This time, the sole witness in the case mysteriously failed to show up when the case was called at the San Fernando Magistrates Court and the matter was dismissed. Again, Panday was at Maharaj's side.
In July 1994, Dole Chadee, who was charged for murder requested Maharaj to join the defence team for his trial. Maharaj took the brief from Chandra, Chadee's wife, and studied it carefully for four weeks. Thereafter, he demanded a fee of $5.5 million with a statement that he would represent Sankerali but indirectly he would assist Chadee and the others. The Chadee family refused to pay.
When UNC came into power in 1995, things changed drastically. He lined up against Chadee and eight other persons who were accused. As is his wont, he employed an English counsel, attended strategy meetings, gave advice and even participated as a member of the Mercy Committee. He also sat in Final Judgement in the Triumvirate, which eventually determined that, the said Sankerali (his intended client) should be executed. The brutal execution of these men shocked the world.
Maharaj's public onslaught against the President is a manifestation of his way of doing things. Although his campaign against the President is unprecedented, uncharitable and vulgar we must understand the source from which it springs. Where the President has asked for a civil discourse to arrive at a judicious conclusion of an important constitutional matter, Maharaj has employed the tactics he honed to a high art as a criminal attorney.
As he did in the case of Chadee, he employed the skills of his English friends, at a tremendous cost, to ensure the defeat of our President. He will succeed only if good men and women sit and do nothing.
Today, we struggle to wrestle our nation from the fangs of such men. Although Maharaj's modus operandi transformed the practice and premises of criminal law, we will not allow him to do a similar thing with our constitutional rights and guarantees. Because we understand his past thus we can detect the trajectory of his present tactics. Therefore, he will not succeed.
Citizens have an obligation to oppose this kind of operation in legal places even as they affirm the decency of our civic way of doing things. In this hour of need, intelligence, vigilance and fortitude must be the weapons of choice.
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