Fri | Jun 2, 2023

Verdict tilts against lawyer-heavy committee

Meade’s appointment as co-chair of constitutional reform body questioned

Published:Thursday | March 23, 2023 | 1:27 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
Marlene Mahaloo-Forte (left), minister of legal and constitutional affairs and chair of the Constitutional Reform Committee, speaks with members (from second left) Senator Donna Scott-Mottley, Hugh Small, Ambassador Rocky Meade, and Anthony Hylton at the a
Marlene Mahaloo-Forte (left), minister of legal and constitutional affairs and chair of the Constitutional Reform Committee, speaks with members (from second left) Senator Donna Scott-Mottley, Hugh Small, Ambassador Rocky Meade, and Anthony Hylton at the announcement of the members of the committee at Jamaica House in St Andrew on Wednesday.

THE APPOINTMENT of 11 lawyers and a former army chief to the 14-member Constitutional Reform Committee is being heavily criticised by civil society and one member of the legal fraternity, even as Prime Minister Andrew Holness insisted on Wednesday that the group will work in the best interest of the country.

Holness announced the appointment of Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs Marlene Malahoo-Forte as chair, and Lieutenant General Rocky Meade as co-chair of the committee established to provide “expert guidance and oversight” to the Government during the process towards republican status.

The two will work alongside Canadian Professor Richard Albert, international constitutional law expert; Attorney General Dr Derrick McKoy; Senate President Tom Tavares-Finson; government Senator Ransford Braham; opposition Senator Donna Scott-Mottley; opposition Member of Parliament Anthony Hylton; Dr Lloyd Barnett, national constitutional law expert; Hugh Small, consultant counsel; Dr David Henry, pastor; Dr Nadeen Spence, civil society, social and political commentator; Laleta Davis Mattis, national reparations committee representative; and Sujae Boswell, youth advisor.

But attorney-at-law Kenyatta Powell has poured cold water on the group, arguing that there are several approaches that can be taken in terms of constitutional reform.

He said one process is to treat the reform as controlled and directed by the elites in society, who have distance between themselves and “ordinary” members of society.

Powell noted that that is the structure of the current Constitution which, he said, was drafted by the “so-called” leading figures of the day between late 1961 and early 1962 when public consultation and discussion were limited.

The draft, he said, was subsequently taken to London, where changes were agreed upon and the Constitution coming through “an imperial act”.

“If we are deciding on fundamental rules as to how we organise a society, that decision should be open to a much wider cross-section of the society. So I reject the idea that only lawyers and people with PhDs have something worthwhile to contribute to the discussion about the fundament rules of how we organise our society,” Powell told The Gleaner.

Further, he said it is not clear what qualifies Meade, who in January 2022 retired as chief of defence staff after some 30 years in the army, to co-chair the committee.

Meade’s latest appointment comes on the heels of his appointment in February to the position of ambassador plenipotentiary with responsibility for national strategic initiatives.

That appointment follows his controversial appointment as cabinet secretary, which raised several questions, including whether the appointment was constitutional.

He subsequently declined to take up the post after former senior civil servants raised concerns that it was a breach of Section 92 (1) of the Constitution, which stipulates that the person appointed cabinet secretary must come from the public service.

Powell said he has concerns that Meade is a part of the committee that will provide oversight for constitutional reform when he has shown himself to be “hostile” to the idea that ordinary Jamaicans should have basic rights that cannot be taken away easily.

He said, too, that Malahoo-Forte has shown a similar hand and noted also that there are concerns about her chairmanship.

Meade, in August 2021, asserted that a lack of “appetite” by Jamaicans for the suspension of certain rights is a major hindrance to the country’s anti-crime effort. He was making the case for the Government’s continued use of states of public emergency as a crime-fighting tool.

Malahoo-Forte, the then attorney general in 2016, argued along a similar line that the Holness administration was prepared to make radical changes to cramp the spiralling murder rate, declaring that some “fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to Jamaicans may have to be abrogated, abridged or infringed”.

At the same time, Jamaicans for Justice Executive Director Mickel Jackson welcomed the naming of the committee as a “critical step” in the country moving towards a republic, and said that the organisation is looking forward to the committee’s terms of reference.

“We raise strong concerns, however, to the appointment of Ambassador Rocky Meade as co-chair. We remind that Ambassador Meade was leader of the operations of the State-sanctioned Tivoli massacre. In the aftermath, upwards of 70 persons were reportedly killed; at least three disappeared, and approximately 4,000 were arbitrarily detained.

“Little accountability was provided, despite the commission’s report. While one is not questioning Ambassador’s Meade’s qualifications, we do question whether this decision is wise, especially when there is work to be done in later phases around the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. In this regard, we question what the contribution of Ambassador Meade’s expertise is expected to provide, given his years in military,” Jackson said.

“We raise questions whether the expertise listed are diverse enough to effectively inform the process,” she added. “We note that majority of members are attorneys and issues worth ventilating needs a broadened and diverse perspective.”