13th Senator case goes to Supreme Court

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015. Aaron Humes Reporting: On September 30, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin will hear preliminary arguments pitting the country’s Leader of the Opposition, Francis Fonseca, against Prime Minister Dean Barrow over the issue of the appointment of a thirteenth member of the Senate.

The United Democratic Party (UDP) had presented amendments to the Constitution to bring in a 13th Senator representing non-governmental organizations as part of its 2008 manifesto. But in 2010 the Prime Minister had a sudden turnaround and has declined to implement Sections 7 and 9 of the Constitutional amendment, citing fears of gridlock affecting Government programs. The NGO’s Belizeans for Justice and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) filed a case trying to force the implementation but fell short in arguments before former Acting Chief Justice Samuel Awich in 2011. The issue then lay dormant for several years even as the Prime Minister insisted he would not act to bring the amendments into force and said he regretted suggesting them.francis fonseca

On May 8, Fonseca and attorney Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay formally announced litigation to force P.M. Barrow’s hand, citing the lapse of a date at which all provisions of the law including Sections 7 and 9 would be brought into force. The delay in instituting the claim, they said, is due to alleged attempts by Government to interfere; as soon as various civil society organizations had decided to take up the matter, the Government would convince their leaders to postpone the decision.

Fonseca said that a 13th Senator may have impacted recent attempts to find answers to allegations of Government corruption which the Senate is normally empowered to investigate, but which attempts to initiate such investigations were thwarted by the Government. Examples include a special Senate Select Committee to investigate the actions of former Minister of State for Immigration and Nationality Elvin Penner and his role in the Won Hong Kim affair and associated visa and immigration irregularities, and plans to look into the spending of Petrocaribe funds.

P.M. Barrow, for his part, says he has tried to negotiate with the social partners to create the conditions that would help the legislation become reality. He had spoken to both the Council of Churches, which already has a representative, and the Chamber of Commerce likewise in the Senate, but there had been no response and so he put the issue on the backburner.

A victory for the PUP in the case would be resisted, says Barrow, because the law is theoretically on his side. He would appeal a decision otherwise but says he wants to see how the court rules before commenting further.

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