Surujbally demits office, backs Govt’s interpretation of Article 161(2) for his successor

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Dr Steve Surujballi

The outgoing Guyana Elections’ Commission (GECOM) Chairman, Dr Steve Surujbally stated earlier today, during his farewell press conference at the GECOM Head Office, that it is his understanding of the constitution that leads him to believe that a Judge is the one that should be appointed in the position of a GECOM Chairman.

“The laws are very interesting. When you read it, it said judge, who could be judge who has been judge, all those words, no comma, then there’s a comma and ‘fit and proper.’ I think, it tells me that the focus …was really judge, really judge, to have a judge here,” he explained.

The issue is the critical words ‘fit and proper’ and if you can get ‘fit and proper’ together with ‘judge and legal’, then you’ve won, that’s the best person ever,” Surujbally said.

In addition, the outgoing GECOM Chairman, who is a veterinarian by profession, hastened to add that in his fifteen and a half years of being in the position, the capacity of a GECOM Commissioner has always been occupied by a lawyer.

“We are never without people who are lawyers. We had Meon McDoom, Lloyd Joseph, we have Sase Gunraj now, Vincent, Bibi Shadick,” he asserted.

For months, the Opposition and Government have been at odds over the nomination of a new GECOM Chairman since Surujbally resigned from the post in November of last year.

The GECOM chairman position would now be vacant since Surujbally demitted office today, having held on a bit longer at the behest of President David Granger to do so until a new Chairman was elected.

However, with the naming of a new Chairman by the President in limbo due to a current stalemate over the interpretation of Article 161 (2) of the constitution, Surujbally explained that he could not continue further.

After Opposition Leader, Dr Bharrat Jagdeo in consultation with NGO’s and private stakeholders, submitted his six nominees, President David Granger rejected them all, indicating that they were ‘unacceptable’ on the grounds that none of them were judges or have the background and qualifications of a Judge which he outlined was in keeping with Article 161 (2) of the constitution.

Article 161 (2) states, “Subject to the provision of paragraph (4), the Chairman of the Elections Commission shall be a person who holds or who has held office as a Judge of a court having unlimited jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters in some part of the Commonwealth or a court having jurisdiction in appeals from any such court, or who is qualified to be appointed as any such Judge, or any other fit and proper person, to be appointed by the President from a list of six persons, not unacceptable to the President, submitted by the Leader of the Opposition after meaningful consultation with the non-governmental political parties represented in the National Assembly.”

Jagdeo had nominated Lawrence Latchmansingh, Ramesh Dookhoo, Norman Mc Lean, Christopher Ram, Rhyaan Shaw and Professor James Rose as the six persons.

The Opposition’s main contention was that the constitution outlined that the post could be filled by any other “fit and proper” person and it was not just limited to a Judge.  As this was the prevailing situation that obtained with other Gecom Chairpersons that were chosen before, the most recent being Surujbally himself.

After it was outlined that the Constitution also caters for persons being “fit and proper”, Government argued that none of the nominees are fit and proper, however no justifications were offered.

Following a stalemate between the Opposition and Government, and the President refusing to meet with the Opposition leader, Granger decided that a meeting be held between the Attorney General Basil Williams, SC and legal representatives (former Attorney General Anil Nandlall and Pryia Manickchand) from the Opposition to iron out the interpretation of Article 161 (2) of the Constitution with the intention of advancing a way forward.

The first meeting with the Attorney General was deemed “unfruitful” since Nandlall had put forward the Opposition’s interpretation of Article 161 (2), which the AG said he had to study and provide a response.

In the second meeting held yesterday Williams responded to arguments put forward by Nandlall arguing that the ejusdem generis rule (which states that general words which follow two or more particular words in an Act must be confined to a meaning of the same class as the particular words) does apply in Guyana and thus can be used as an aid in construing article 161 (2).

His contention therefore was that the term ‘Judge’ preceded that of any “fit and proper person” and based on the ejusdem generis rule, persons being a Judge would be placed in the “priority category” to which “fit and proper” would have to follow.

“Consequently, the Leader of the Opposition’s list of candidates must include the persons required by the Constitution in the priority category, supported by the proviso. A list from the Leader of the Opposition, with candidates that only fit into the secondary category: namely ‘any other fit and proper person’ would be an unacceptable list” Williams in his response to Nandlall said.

However, Nandlall in a statement said that Williams failed to address the crux of the matter, which he said was “who qualify as/ or what are the attributes of, ‘any other fit and proper person’.”

According to Nandlall, “in his document, the Attorney General simply essayed a response to my interpretation of Article 161 (2) of the Constitution, which I left with him the last time we met. The gravamen of his presentation is that he disputes that the ejusdem generis rule of construction of statute applies to Guyana. In Our view, this does not assist in resolving the matters of controversy. In fact, if we are to follow suit and reciprocate, we will end up creating a new controversy, i.e., whether that cannon of statutory construction does or does not apply in Guyana. This simply distracts from the issue at hand.”

Jagdeo had said that he would consider submitting a second list, depending on the outcome of the meeting between the Attorney General and his representative.

“After that meeting, should I have to submit a new list, I would probably consult broadly again with people so that I can get the best names to go forward,” he explained, noting that this is just a hypothetical situation.

Jagdeo reminded that the purpose of the meeting he had requested was to expose President David Granger to a different interpretation from what is being fed by his Attorney General regarding the Constitution.

But since this meeting was rejected, Jagdeo said he will participate in the proposed engagement in keeping with the best interest of the country.

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