By Colin Hyde
For some time we’ve been waiting to find out who would take a permanent seat at the head of our highest court. Would it be the Acting Chief Justice Michelle Arana, who has been holding the position since 2020 when she took over from CJ Benjamin, or would the PUP look abroad for someone new? Before 1998, the question of who sits as CJ wasn’t a hot topic in the public arena. Then the UDP installed Justice Manuel Sosa as CJ just before they got dumped from office, and for reasons not told to us, the blue camp saw red.
The 1998-2003 PUP rejected CJ Sosa, and went da foreign for CJ Conteh. The UDP took over in 2008, and they didn’t encourage CJ Conteh to postpone retirement, so in 2010 we got a new CJ. In 2020 the UDP gave us a Belizean, Ms. Arana, to act as CJ, and after hedging, or waiting for over a year, the PUP set up a process out of which emerged a CJ from the Caribbean.
Having a Belizean confirmed in the post wouldn’t have been a new thing. According to one Wikipedia page, 4 Belizeans have been CJ – Albert Staine, George Brown, George Singh, and Manuel Sosa. George Brown was Acting CJ 1985-86, and was CJ between 1990 and 1998. The tenures of Singh and Sosa were brief. John Gonzalez also acted as CJ, from 1999 to 2000.
It might have been of consequence to the selection process that there has been some restructuring of the system. The Supreme Court is now the High Court, which, along with the Court of Appeal, will be presided over by the CJ, who can still hear cases but primarily will be involved with administration — supervision of the system to ensure that judges are on the ball with their duties.
Some of the complaints against the GOB for choosing a foreign CJ (the GOB said no Belizean applied for the post), are that it was disrespectful to advertise the job when we already had a very competent national acting in the position, that the Acting CJ’s race and ethnicity played against her, and that we passed up a glorious chance to have our first woman CJ. Those who weren’t happy about the GOB’s decision say that the new CJ’s academic credentials and experience are sterling, but point out that Justice Arana also has much glorious achievement on her resumé.
In the realm of feel-good stories, it would have been a storybook ending to have Ms. Arana as CJ. People need to feel good about themselves, and the impact of a native, black, Garifuna woman as CJ would have been very positive, especially for young Belizeans. It’s only been sixty years now that natives have been getting first crack at the top jobs; to be black puts you on the lowest rung in the world, to be Garifuna puts you in the bottom income brackets in the country, and to be woman means — yes, none of that gender has served as Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, or Chief Justice of Belize.
Talking nationality, I don’t know how many times it has to be said that, similar to how the captain of a small vessel operates differently from one captaining a big ship, running small countries is not the same as running big ones. The “nationals only” caucus railed when Sedi Elrington suggested that it might be better that the head of our Police Department come from a foreign country. It is an apparent practice in the Police Department that officers, especially new ones, are sent to work outside of their district, and it is believed that is because they are less likely to be stressed by friends and family for favors when trouble comes. It must be very difficult being Commissioner of Police in Belize, and maybe we’ll learn some about that after Mr. Chester leaves office, because he loves to chat.
We have to be very careful when discussing race and ethnicity in a country with many tribes, but we shouldn’t put on blinders or try to pretend away reality. In all the years we’ve been having general elections, I can think of only one afro candidate who got over in the north: the present Minister of Health and Wellness, Kevin Bernard. Indeed, I can’t think of any other afro person who has contested in those districts. I’m not expressing concern about that. I’m just pointing out what is real.
On the matter of gender, I will thank the women for not joining their voices to men who are acting like they are the leaders of the local women’s rights movement. Of course, I won’t turn the words of Tina, who was copied by Manuel. I won’t say: what does gender have to do with it?
In the country with the loudest democracy, the USA, the hiring of high judges is always a very public matter. Two big stories coming out after the recent stunning US Supreme Court ruling on abortion show the role played by personal issues in the decision. One report says that Clarence Thomas, one of the judges who pushed against abortion rights, promised a long time ago to make the liberals, people in that country who support things like abortion, pay for the grilling they put him through before he was narrowly accepted as a Supreme Court judge in 1991. The other story is that former US president, Trump, stacked their Supreme Court with the judges who voted against abortion rights out of spite, because he had a beef with former president, Obama.
My, the things little human beings do when people give them power, or they are allowed to seize it! My, big men aren’t supposed to play these kinds of games. There are deeper issues, of course. Thomas is hardline against abortion, and Trump is wishy-washy, a politician playing up for votes.
I don’t know that the present government had a beef with the Acting CJ; what I do know is that when we are talking the position of CJ, the charges that are being made, while not peripheral, are far from the primary story. Those matters we discussed are not inconsequential, but when it comes to selecting a CJ I’ll go with MLK, Jr. – first is what’s within. Without, both justices, the one chosen by the government and the one seemingly preferred by the majority of us, are black, and women. When it comes to what’s within in the academic field, they both have sterling credentials.
Ah, then it’s about their positions on the issues of the day. Unfortunately, we don’t know much there. A judge must act according to the law, but their outlook on life does impact their decisions. I think it’s a fascinating question, how Manuel Sosa would have ruled in the Mayan Rights case if he had been kept on as CJ. Abdulai Conteh’s ruling was influenced by where he came from. My belief is Mr. Sosa would not have given the same ruling Mr. Conteh did.
As the Americans will testify, be very careful with the selection of judges. Why did the UDP choose Manuel Sosa, and why did the PUP not want him? What a pity our lawyer fraternity, especially the males, have so little credibility. All their epitaphs will read: they loved the law more than they loved justice. Of course, their love of money trumps both, but we can’t put that on a tombstone.
Time will judge the PUP on this one. Her Majesty’s Opposition loudly crowed them down. That’s no big surprise. They most likely would, having placed the local judge in the acting post, have preferred her, and then there’s their natural suspicion of the blue camp. But we won’t worry about the UDP. We’ll consider that it’s possible our Michelle didn’t want the job at this time. It’s a good bet that somewhere down the road it will be hers, if she wants it.