Bernard De Santos who died last week has left his mark on the country, as much as the country left its mark on him. This column is not a tribute to Bernard De Santos but merely a reflection of some of the things which he said in public and which are relevant as the country approaches its worst ever constitutional crisis.
Bernard De Santos is a man for a crisis, be it personal or political. If your life depended on the quality of legal representation then you had better get Bernard De Santos.
If there is any lawyer who could break down a prosecution’s case, it was Bernard. A great many persons are today free men because of his art of cross examination and his mastery of summing up which combined are unsurpassed in criminal defense.
In and outside of the Courts, he had that quality which all great advocates have. He had presence. And he could deliver his summing up in a commanding style which the ordinary juror could identify.
Bernard will be remembered for something that he said at the commencement of the case brought in front of Justice Desiree Bernard, challenging the ascension of Janet Jagan was President. The swearing- in of Janet Jagan and the victory of the PPPC in 1997 were met with almost daily violent street protests in the city.
At the commencement of that case Bernard De Santos spoke to the media. He said that the Courts are the proper place for disputes over democracy to be settled. He noted that it was in the hallowed chambers of the courts that the litigants argued their case, put it before a judge and awaited a resolution.
He was making a case for the resolution of what was essentially a legal matter in the courts rather than fighting and rioting in the streets.
In another Court case, the immunities of the President were being challenged. Bernard again made another public comment. He explained the thinking of the framers of the post-1997 constitutional amendments which retained the immunity from criminal and civil prosecution of a sitting President.
Bernard De Santos explained that without these immunities, the Presidency would be brought into disrepute because the absence of the immunities would open the floodgates to all manner of trivial criminal and civil charges against a sitting President.
He gave a rational explanation for the retention of the immunities of the President, during the constitutional reform process. The immunities protect the institution of the Presidency.
A case was brought before our Courts to secure an interpretation as to whether it was mandatory for ’ fit and proper’ person appointed as Chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission is required to be a judge, a retired judge or have judge-like qualities. After the ruling by the Chief Justice there was a symposium hosted by the PPPC at which De Santos spoke about the case and the decision.
He noted that Guyana still has independent jurists of integrity and courage. He pointed to the Chief Justice as embodying those qualities, and in his own inimitable said he knew she was a woman but she had ‘balls’ (courage).
Recently, a controversy arose over the ‘dissing’ of someone nominated for Senior Counsel. De Santos, waded into the arguments which suggested that the appointments were made at the discretion of the President.
He argued that the conferral of ‘silk’ on attorneys should not be done at the discretion of the president because the Head of State is not familiar with the record and qualifications of the nominees.
Despite his strong views and his outspokenness, he was not a man who harbored grudges. Bernard De Santos’s home was open to persons of all political persuasions. While he was Attorney General, one of his close friends was Winston Murray, a senior leader of the then opposition political party.
Bernard could differ with your political views but at the same time, sit and engage you in the most entertaining and riveting conversations. He possessed rare human warmth, a quality which would be sorely missed as much as his strong opinions which he shared, regrettably, ever so sparingly.
Rest in Peace, Santos!
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