OPPOSITION LEADER Kamla Persad-Bissessar wrote to the Speaker of the House on Wednesday to say she considers it a “gross affront” to the Constitution that there will be no debate on her impeachment motion.
“It is exceedingly significant that the matter we seek to debate involves what may very well be a subversion of the Constitution by political interference with the Police Service Commission (PSC), which is supposed to be independent. It is absurd to ask members of the House and Senate to vote on such an important motion without a debate.”
Section 36 of the Constitution, the section that describes the process to be employed in removing a sitting president, makes no mention of a debate. The relevant portion of Parliament's standing orders also do not contain a provision for a debate.
After the motion is raised in the House of Representatives, which must be signed by one-third of the members, the Electoral College – a combination of both the Senate and the House of Representatives – must adopt the motion for it to go before a tribunal headed by the Chief Justice. The motion needs a two-thirds vote from the Electoral College for it to be sent to the tribunal.
The Electoral College totals 72 members. The Opposition commands 25 while the Government has 38, and the remaining nine are independent senators appointed by the President. The two-thirds mandate equates to 48 votes, which means the Opposition will have to get the support of 23 others in order for the tribunal to be convened.
According to guidelines submitted by the Speaker, Brigid Annisette-George, on Tuesday, the process will take that route, with her adding that there will be no debate.
Contacted on the letter addressed to her, Annisette-George said she was told that "something" came addressed to her at 4.30 but she had not seen it. She added that before responding in the media, she would want to address her response to the author of the letter.
Commenting on the motion earlier, Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis said Persad-Bissessar did not know parliamentary procedure, adding that debate was not allowed in such motions.
Newsday spoke with senior counsel Avery Sinanan, who said, based on the wording of the Constitution, there was no room for a debate.
"I don't see any rules under the relevant provisions in the Constitution for a debate. I think the House Speaker is really batting in her crease. I don't think she should be faulted. Show me in the regulations where it says you are entitled to a debate."
He added that while that is so a motion of that magnitude before the Parliament should be amplified and articulated during a debate. He said the Speaker is left without discretion and must follow the Constitution.
"The real culprit here is the Constitution, and the omission or the lacuna in the Constitution to provide for a debate."
In her letter, Persad-Bissessar said: “The absence of a debate presupposes that members have come to vote with predetermined positions. Is it that you have assumed that members will toe party lines and independent senators will be loyal to the President because she was responsible for their appointments? Surely, members should come to listen to the debate with an open mind, receptive to arguments and suasion – to presume otherwise breaches the fundamental and sacred tenets of our democracy.”
The Opposition Leader added that the lack of debate was an abuse of power. She said if the guidelines were not altered it would be signal that the country is now “officially a dictatorship” and against the Constitution.
The motion to have the President impeached comes as the Opposition claims there was political interference in the selection process of a new police commissioner. The Opposition claims that an unknown government official caused the PSC to withdraw the list of names selected for consideration for the top cop position.
The President said on Sunday that she received an order of merit list from the PSC, but before she could send the list to Parliament for debate, the PSC withdrew the list and told her the process was incomplete.
The Bliss Seepersad-led PSC later imploded when it became public knowledge that a decision to suspend then acting Police Commissioner Gary Griffith without the approval of the members. There were suggestions that the process was being manipulated.
Persad-Bissessar also called on Annisette-George to recuse herself from the motion on Thursday, since she was the attorney general in 2009, when she advised on the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Commissioner of Police (Acting Appointments) (Selection Process) (No 2) Order 2009.
Last Thursday, High Court judge Nadine Kangaloo ruled that the order was void.
“The invalidity of the 2009 Order has exacerbated the current constitutional crisis and has left our country without an acting Commissioner of Police and a collapsed Police Service Commission. All of these matters raise a serious conflict of interest as the public will not have confidence in your ability to be fair and impartial in circumstances where your Order precipitated the very crisis that has led us to the brink of this disastrous precipice.”
Persad-Bissessar also asked for Independent Senator Charrise Seepersad not to be allowed to participate in proceedings. She pointed out that Charrise is the sister of Bliss Seepersad, the “dishonoured former chairman of the PSC,” who played a critical role in “this constitutional fiasco.”
What the Constitution says:
36. (1) The President shall be removed from office where—
(a) a motion that his removal from office should be investigated by a tribunal is proposed in the House of Representatives;
(b) the motion states with full particulars the grounds on which his removal from office is proposed, and is signed by not less than one-third of the total membership of the House of Representatives;
(c) the motion is adopted by the vote of not less than two-thirds of the total membership of the Senate and the House of Representatives assembled together;
(d) a tribunal consisting of the Chief Justice and four other Judges appointed by him, being as far as practicable the most senior Judges, investigate the complaint and report on the facts to the House of Representatives;
(e) the Senate and the House of Representatives assembled together on the summons of the Speaker consider the report and by resolution supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of the total membership of the Senate and the House of Representatives assembled together declare that he shall be removed from office.
(2) Where a motion is adopted as is provided for in subsection (1)(a), (b) and (c) the President shall cease to perform any of his functions as President and the President of the Senate shall act temporarily as President.
(3) The procedure of the tribunal shall be such as is prescribed, but, subject to such procedure, the tribunal may regulate its own procedure.
(4) Upon the adoption of the resolution in accordance with subsection (1)(e) the office shall become vacant.