Major Court Controversy erupts
Last week the judiciary plunged into political controversy when the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) publicly questioned the integrity of resident Judge Bernie Stephenson.
Judge Stephenson was scheduled to begin hearing 10 petitions that the UWP filed after the December 2019 general election.
The UWP wanted Judge Stephenson to recuse herself because as far as the UWP was concerned Judge Stephenson's rulings were in many instances were against the UWP.
"She has over-stayed her welcome in Dominica as far as I am concerned," Linton told his radio audience last week. "Let them say what they want; let them do what they want. It is my view; this is what I believe in my heart based on an honest assessment of her judgements against the United Workers Party and other opposition interest in the Commonwealth of Dominica since she's been here."
Soon afterwards Levi Peter, the Attorney General, also on radio saying that that attack at the Ladyship Justice Stephenson was a frontal and unwarranted attack on the judiciary as a whole and cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. Indeed it must be and is hereby roundly condemned".
Peter added that although Linton had the constitutional right to free expression "that freedom does not extend to launching baseless politically motivated and malicious attacks on the competence, professionalism and integrity of individual judges or for that matter the judiciary."
The Attorney General said Linton's behaviour was "unacceptable" and "reckless" and he "strongly urged Linton and his followers to respect the high office that he holds, the court and the judges and allow the legal process to take its course without further undue delay."
Peter asked Linton to note that "such actions may well constitute contempt of court."
The Dominica Bar Association (DBA) also contributed to the controversy by circulating and unsigned statement that did not contain the DBA letterhead.
According to the statement: "Our justice system as it relates to the independence of the judiciary and the dispensation of justice in Dominica and in the region enjoys a reputation that all and any person seeking justice can have full confidence in".
The DBA added that "the fact that a trial judge rules against a party and/or that the judge's decision is overturned on appeal in no way means that this judge was incompetent and/or biased" and that the "the law on recusal is well established."
After Judge Bernie Stephenson recused, or was asked to recuse herself, it was widely expected that the other resident Judge, Justice Wynante Adrien-Roberts would hear the case but Attorney General Peter thought otherwise and asked Chief Justice Dame Janice M. Pereira "to consider assigning a Judge from outside of the jurisdiction of Dominica", to hear the petitions.
Peter's letter is published below:
Dame Janice M. Pereira, DBE Chief Justice
Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court
P.O. Box 1093
Castries Saint Lucia
Dear Chief Justice
Re: Various Petitioners v Various Elected Representatives; Case No. DOMHCV2019/0307
I am writing with a deep sense of concern and foreboding for the likely serious detriment to the integrity of the Court and justice system which led to Orders made by Her Ladyship, Hon. Justice Birnie Stephenson "without hearing ex proprio muto", in which Her Ladyship recused herself "from all the Election Petitions involving different parties but carrying the same suit number aforesaid.".
It is my understanding that Her Ladyship's action may well have been prompted by a hostile, public, and pejorative campaign against Her Ladyship on public radio, and demands that Her Ladyship recuse herself from this case. By all appearances, this campaign was calculated to instill fear and other questionable influences unconnected with and antithetical to the interests of justice over the High Court, and to undermine the integrity of the Court and Her Ladyship.
This risk setting an extremely disturbing and regrettable trend, especially for small jurisdictions such as ours. The critical public interest question which however now arises is who could or should replace Madame Justice Stephenson.
The other Judge in Dominica is a national of Dominica, was a former Solicitor General under a Roosevelt Skerrit led administration, and was for a number of years immediately prior to her appointment to the Bench, in private practice in Dominica. Quite apart from any issue which may arise from her former post as Solicitor General and private practice engagements, it is highly likely that Her Ladyship would be familiar with persons who are interested in these petitions and applications to strike. Also, these petitions and applications to strike concern highly contentious political matters, as is evident from the hostile public attacks against Her Ladyship, Hon. Justice Stephenson.
Consequently, in the interests of justice not merely being done but being seen to be done, I would respectfully suggest that Your Ladyship may wish to consider assigning a Judge from outside of the jurisdiction of Dominica, to hear these applications to strike, and if necessary, the petitions. In my respectful opinion this would best serve the interests of the High Court and public. I should add that to do so would not be departure from precedent as this has previously been done in Dominica for the petitions and strike out applications following the 2005 and 2009 general elections.
I await Your Ladyship's response in this extremely important matter. Respectfully
HON. LEVI A. PETER ATTORNEY GENERAL