Dame Joan Sawyer Vs Dame Anita Allen; Can Two Former Justices Agree?
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Covid-19 has thrust the Bahamas in uncharted waters and like the rest of the world, the country has implemented curfews and lockdown measures to contain the spread of the infectious disease.
Attorney Wayne Munroe filed a lawsuit on behalf of 21 people, on the constitutionality of emergency orders, many of whom are business owners negatively affected by the orders, and other individuals charged and convicted for violations of the orders.
Now, two former prominent members of the Bahamas judicial system have ‘butt heads’ in the public domain, over the legality of the lockdown orders.
For the first time, the public has witnessed a fight between two well-respected women of the legal society.
Who are they?
Dame Joan Sawyer
79-year-old Justice Joan Sawyer is the former Chief Justice from 1996 to 2001 and former President of the Court of Appeal, where she served until 2010, when she retired.
Since leaving her post, Sawyer favours talk-shows, delivering fiery rebukes of politicians and their political decisions.
In 2016, she butt heads with Former Deputy Leader of the Free National Movement Loretta Butler Turner and Former Attorney General Allyson Maynard over the gender equality referendum, when Sawyer said she would vote ‘no,’ despite not reading any of the proposed questions.
Sawyer claimed that the Christie administration was using the gender equality vote as a “ruse” to implement lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
At the time, Butler said of Sawyer, “What really bothered me and most Bahamians is the fact that persons like Dame Joan Sawyer have reached the pinnacle of their legal career, she retired as the chief justice and the fact that she was able to make such strong pronouncements in the absence of facts, really gives me reason to question the motive.”
In 2017, Sawyer rebuked several government initiatives of the Christie administration such as value added tax and Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival. Dame Joan criticised the festival where women make themselves “exhibits”.
Dame Anita Allen
72-year-old Dame Justice Anita Allen served as Justice of the Supreme Court of the Bahamas in 1995, and was elevated to Senior Justice in 2005. Allen is the former President of the Court of Appeal, having retired in 2017, a position which she has held since 2010.
She succeeded Joan Sawyer and became the second woman to hold that post, and is the current law reform commissioner for the government.
Allen is married to former Free National Movement Cabinet Minister Algernon Allen.
Why the Opposition and Dame Joan Sawyer agree
Since the implementation of the emergency order, the Progressive Liberal Party Leader Philip Davis opposed the orders, citing social and economic impact on the country.
Attorney Wayne Munroe, who ran for the PLP in the 2017 election and is vying for PLP nomination in 2020 said, “We continue to say there is no state of emergency and that the emergency regulations are unconstitutional.”
He has not only filed a lawsuit for 21 people against the government, but has since filed a personal action against Dr. Minnis after a group of people were arrested on Tuesday morning for protesting against the immediate seven-day lockdown.
And recently, Sawyer, a prominent voice, has also come out against the orders, referring to the lockdowns as “house arrest” and “detention.”
“By ‘detention,’ I mean, telling us when we can leave our homes, when we can exercise, when we can go to the shops, telling us when we can get married, how and when we can bury our dead relatives, among other things, telling us when we can go to a doctor or a dentist as well as how many of us can go to church at a time, how long we can be in church and so on and so on,” Sawyer said.
“…It (government) has exercised an exorbitant power on the pretext that they are concerned to save lives from this “deadly virus” by detaining every person in The Bahamas — except for persons they have in their wisdom deemed “essential workers,” she said.
Sawyer likened the emergency orders to dictatorial practices of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
“If your argument is correct, there is nothing wrong with the government inflicting torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on people who have not been charged with any breach of any law let alone the orders of the administration during a declared period of public emergency.”
On whose side is the government?
Dame Allen supports a national lockdown implemented by the government and has called for stricter measures.
Highlighting the exponential increases in cases, she said, “If this (the COVID-19 numbers) continues, our medical capacity will be exhausted and we will all be in trouble.”
Allen then criticizes opponents of the lockdown like Attorney Wayne Munroe and Justice Sawyer, saying, she believes the lockdown is necessary.
Allen said, “The message regarding the seriousness of the situation and the absolute necessity for everyone to adhere to the protocols put in place for our protection is being garbled and diluted by people waving the Constitution and wrongly proclaiming the unconstitutionality of lockdowns, curfews and quarantine during a state of public emergency.”
She continued, “Moreover, if the science warrants a lockdown, and in my view it does, there should be a full and complete lockdown for a week with no businesses open, and a partial lockdown the week after, only allowing for food store and pharmacy runs!”
The next day, at 8pm, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis implemented a 7-day lockdown of Grand Bahama and New Providence, which experienced surging cases.
Minnis in his immediate implementation of the 7-day lockdown said, “Indeed, as noted by leading jurists in our country, the requirement for the constitutionality of various provisions is that is that they are ‘reasonably justifiable in the circumstances of the emergency.'”
“Indeed, our Founders fathers wisely placed in our constitution provisions allowing the Governor General to declare proclamations of emergency. Such proclamations exist to allow the Government to act to protect the people in times of great national crisis.”
Minnis continued, “If the Government did not have the Emergency Powers there would be mass death in The Bahamas beyond the imagination of most. Those who tell you the Emergency Powers are not necessary are unserious and dead wrong.”