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Friday 24 May 2019
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AG in political crossfire

Crossfire. This is described as “an attack or criticisms from several sources at once; a lively or combative exchange of views.” It was political fire and brimstone last week in the US Congress as its members quarrelled over the role of Attorney General William Barr in handling the controversial Robert Mueller 444-page report into “Russian interference in the 2016 elections.”

The crossfire between the Republican and Democratic members seems heading for the courts (as of last Thursday). Barr refused to appear under oath before a House Judiciary Oversight Committee for refusing to release the full Mueller report as well as allegations of “lying.”. He was subpoenaed. So too was President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, for not appearing on a related matter before a Senate committee hearing. Our parliamentary select committees have no such powers. Our AG is a prioritised political appointee.

President Trump who appointed Barr as AG used executive privilege to deny release of the full Mueller report. “Constitutional crisis,” exclaimed House Committee chair Jerry Nadler. Is AG Barr being too politically-driven? Can he be punished, considering such subpoena goes to the Department of Justice which Barr oversees. Tempers flared, recalling memories of the 1972 executive vs legislature Watergate scandal.

This fiery clash between the executive and the legislature largely over the AG’s role reminds me of whether our own Attorney General should be an independent public (servant) officer or a politically-appointed official. In particular, the Wooding Constitution Commission Report (1974) and the Hyatali Commission Report (1987) differed in seeking a balance between political impartiality and the political privileges of a freely elected government.

The Wooding Commission proposed (1) A minister of legal affairs to advise cabinet, pursue civil litigation, drafting of bills, etc with the solicitor general under this minister. (2) An AG as an “independent public officer” appointed by the President to serve as adviser to the President, service commissions, boundaries commission, auditor general, etc. Also to determine whether or not to institute or discontinue criminal proceedings, and “not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority.” The Wooding Commission concluded: “This division of offices should strengthen public confidence in the impartiality of the administration of the law.” Then PM Dr Williams loudly rebuffed the Wooding Report.

The very conservative Hyatali Report noted the “possibility of abuse” by a politically-appointed AG but disagreed with the Wooding proposals. It supported the present system by crisply and curiously stating: “The powers and responsibilities of the Attorney General can be abused, but to affirm on that account that they should not be entrusted to a politician is held by some to be a confession of unfitness for self-rule and democracy.” This, in spite of having two members who were also on the Wooding Commission.

Our present constitution declares:

1. The AG is appointed by the Prime Minister with responsibility for “the administration of legal affairs in Trinidad and Tobago.” (Section 76(2))

2. That subject to section 76(2), the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) shall be “a public officer” to initiate, take over or discontinue prosecution of criminal proceedings. (Section 90)

Any reason for constitution reform now?

From this “high-brow” narrative, we provide seven selections from ground-level, street talk: (1) Before the Buju Banton concert, Minister Young advised citizens to lock doors and be careful of possessions. Buju has now gone, it's safe, so you can open up now. (2) Replying to PM Rowley’s claim that former education minister Tim Gopeesingh only built “22 schools” and not “100,” Gopeesingh produced a list of “106 schools” while calling Rowley's claim “fake news.” Who is right? (3) Did the police wear their body-cameras at the Carenage shootout? Should all citizens now wear bullet-proof vests? (4) What is the total cost of the Witness Protection Programme, how many involved and for how long? (5) Why should MP Ganga Singh call this county “a land of maccos” and AG al-Rawi’s legislation “foreign used?” (6) With Trump, sexual escapades don’t matter as he awarded Tiger Woods the coveted Medal of Freedom. (7) Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Christine Newallo should find out the cost of that massive coastal repair project in Manzanilla.

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