Mon | Oct 15, 2018

Editorial | Sykes affair a teaching moment

Published:Wednesday | February 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It seems that Prime Minister Andrew Holness will acquiesce to the public outrage and instruct that Bryan Sykes be permanently appointed as Jamaica's chief justice, after an uncomfortable fortnight for the Government of having him act in the post. It should happen, hopefully, much sooner rather than later.

Adding to the prime minister's discomfort must be the unprecedented public rebuke from the island's judges for the Government's approach to the appointment.

There are many lessons for Mr Holness in this political fiasco, which was of the prime minister's own making, not least of which is that some principles are timeless and it is important for leaders to know what they are and to act within their bounds. Further, Mr Holness should use this episode to hone his judgement, learning when attempts at thoughtful behavour carry the hallmarks of hubris and overreach, which appears to have been the case with the Sykes affair.

Additionally, as P.J. Patterson, the former prime minister, publicly advised him, as a politician and leader who is apparently in the ring for the long haul, he has to master the art of dignified retreat. For, prime ministers, too, make mistakes. There will be others, hopefully less consequential, even after the dust has settled on the Sykes matter.

Justice Sykes is a thoughtful jurist, who enjoys the respect of the Bench and Bar. In that regard, Mr Holness deserves credit for choosing him for the post of chief justice. But the prime minister undercut his own credibility and that of the appointment by appearing to encroach on the independence of the judiciary.

The Constitution dictates the retirement age of judges. So, Mr Holness would have been aware from the day he became prime minister nearly two years ago that the former chief justice, Zaila McCalla, would have retired on her 70th birthday on January 31.

Beyond the questions of the constitutionality, in the circumstances, of the acting appointment, Mr Holness added injury to the insult by making clear he considered Justice Sykes to be on probation. "Actions that bring results will determine the assumption to the role of chief justice," the prime minister said at Justice Sykes' oath-taking ceremony.

In the face of public criticisms of the approach and of the dangers of muddling the demarcation between the executive and the judiciary and, therewith, the independence of the courts, Mr Holness doubled down, again alluding to the fact that he was the first of Jamaica's leaders to be born after Independence, as though that gives him some unique insight. "I come from a different school, a different age and a different way of thinking," he said. "It may not always coincide with those that have traditional views."

Perhaps! But that is only of value if that thinking generates expansive ideas that enhance the system of democracy, which, up to now, is unrivalled as the way free societies organise their governments. This includes a separation of powers, not only by declarations of commitment, such as Mr Holness', but the deeds and appearances.

Indeed, that was the crux of the argument of the judges in their historic statement. They said: "... It is our considered view that declarations of the prime minister relative to the acting appointment unquestionably have serious implications for the fundamental principles of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary ... . These are principles of great jurisprudential value, as they form the foundation of our constitutional democracy ... which are critical imperatives for the protection and preservation of the rule of law."

This newspaper concurs.