by Dr Garrey Dennie
St Mary’s College of Maryland
“THE PETITIONS ARE HEREBY DISMISSED.”
With these five words Justice Stanley John shattered the NDP’s vain hopes that they could achieve in the courtroom what they could not achieve in the polling rooms: the electoral defeat of the ULP.
The scale of the defeat is maximal. For whereas the Court accepted as fact some of the central claims of Stalky John and Keith Scotland – the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs – that some election officials breached the election rules, the judge also held that “these breaches…did not affect the result of the election.” Indeed, the Court also ruled that “having considered all the evidence, the election was conducted substantially in accordance with the law.”
To understand the scale of this epic defeat, we need be reminded of two things. The NDP was not only engaged in a legal fight in the court of law. They were also engaged in a political fight in the court of public opinion. And in these two courts, different rules applied. In the court of law their lawyers had to adhere to the rules of evidence. In the court of public opinion all that was necessary was to say anything that could generate the passion of their supporters. In the court of law the NDP’s lawyers understood that the pursuit of and demonstration of truth is central to legal success. In the court of public opinion, however, the NDP’s leaders could lie with impunity. And the myth of a stolen election would be their biggest lie.
At the heart of the NDP’s dual strategy, however, lay a fatal flaw. What happens when the search for truth under the rules of evidence required in a court collides with the propagation of lies that a political strategy demands? One, or both, had to suffer. Not surprisingly, as excellent lawyers, Stalky John and Keith Scotland threw the NDP’s conspiracy theories of a stolen election under the bus. In their submissions before the Court in all of their pleadings and cross examination they never for a single instance solicited or elicited any testimony of a criminal conspiracy to defraud the Vincentian electorate. Rather, through deeply detailed testimonies from several witnesses, Stalky John and Keith Scotland demonstrated, and the Justice John agreed, that at times, whether through incompetence, insolence, or ignorance, the election officials breached election regulations.
Incompetence, however, is not malfeasance. Hence, long before Justice John had issued his opinion that demolished the NDP’s legal case, the very strategy Stalky John and Keith Scotland had pursued to win their legal case had also destroyed the conspiracy theories that had become the distinctive calling card of the NDP’s public excoriation of the ULP’s victory in the December 2015 election. They did this of course in silence. They did this unwittingly. But they did it all the same. Their silence in the court of law on the NDP’s conspiracy theories speaks volumes on the fraudulent claims propagated by the NDP leaders.
The irony in all of this is that this case should never have gotten to this point and hence the NDP would have avoided this epic defeat. But Justice John’s decision was the culmination of a three-year legal odyssey within which the NDP’s lawyers succeeded in transforming what appeared a hopeless case into a political weapon against the ULP. Central to this strategy was the claim the ULP had “stolen” the election and that it should be challenged in a court of law.
To sustain this false claim, the NDP temporarily engaged in a boycott of Parliament on the grounds that to attend Parliament would give legitimacy to a government that had illegally held on to power. Ben-David’s recent article in this newspaper is absolute correct in laying bare the crass political ambitions at the heart of this spurious claim.
Justice Cottle knew that the legal challenge to the elections was built on a shaky legal foundation and ruled to dismiss the petitions. But he made the fundamental error of signaling how he would rule in the case before he actually heard the case. And Stalky John pounced on the error and persuaded the Appellate Court that Justice Cottle had committed a cardinal error, that of apparent bias.
Like Lazarus then, the case had arisen from the dead, and Justice Henry was given the task of giving the case a hearing free from the taint of bias. It is in the court of Justice Henry that Stalky John and Keith Scotland achieved their greatest victory.
The first question before the Court was whether the case should be heard at all, a question on which Justice Cottle had earlier ruled in the negative. But whereas Justice Cottle had accepted the argument of the ULP’s lawyers that the NDP’s lawyers had violated the terms under which they are permitted to file their challenge to the election, Stalky and company persuaded Justice Henry that those terms were simply discretionary, not mandatory, and therefore she must rule to permit the NDP lawyers to present their case to the Court that the election results in the two constituencies of Central Leeward and North Windward must be overturned.
As it now turns out, this was a pyrrhic victory, setting the stage for the most complete defeat of a Vincentian political party not only in the Court of Law, but in the Court of Public Opinion.