HE WILL be remembered for making history as the first chief justice of East Indian descent and as the one who found himself at the centre of a constitutional storm which laid bare our polarised society and the capacity for politics to distort Lady Justice. Sat Sharma, who died yesterday at the age of 76, left behind a legacy inextricably tied with at least four others: Patrick Manning, Basdeo Panday, John Jeremie and Sherman McNicols.
Justice, it is often said, is blind. But the proceedings of the Mustill Inquiry – set up under section 137 of the Constitution by Manning to inquire whether Sharma should be subject to impeachment proceedings – presented the country with a chief justice prone to airplane banter with prosecutors and an attorney general willing to intervene in judicial affairs but unwilling to take the witness stand. The fallout was a justice system vulnerable to allegations of apparent bias from all sides.
“The picture presented to this tribunal almost defies belief,” Lord Mustill found. In the end Sharma was cleared and was not subject to removal proceedings at the Privy Council. Yet, he went down in history as the first chief justice to be subject to a criminal charge, though that case, too, collapsed in spectacular fashion when the chief magistrate at the time, McNicols, declined to testify.
Sharma’s passing comes at a time when the question of impeachment proceedings is yet again the centre of a political storm. His tenure, and that of his successor’s, remind us of the need for reform of our juridical-political institutions. Yet some will also point to a legacy beyond the scandalous headlines.
Before becoming this country’s eighth post-independence chief justice, Sharma was called to the Bar in 1966, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1983 as a judge and then elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1988. He began his legal practice in 1968, first in the Magistrates' Courts, and later in the High Court.
Sharma is often remembered as a fearless and fair judge whose landmark judgments were upheld in the Privy Council. He also presided over introduction of novel rules, procedures and technologies which ushered in a substantially new way of managing the business of the courts.
Sharma received the Trinity Cross in 2003 but prior to that had received the Chaconia Medal (Gold) in 1998 for his contribution to law. He often walked around the Queen’s Park Savannah on evenings.
In his final years, he was not shy to contribute to discussion of public-interest matters. Except perhaps on one occasion when he said, “There are times when a person in my position, having regard to all that has happened and in light of the Mustill Report, should not say anything. I don’t wish to say anything. The Mustill Report has spoken.”
May he rest in peace.