Who Will Be Chief?

The Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Conteh turned 65 two weeks ago which is the constitutionally prescribed age of retirement for persons who hold that office. He is finishing up pending matters and is expected to leave the post at the end of September.

And so, for the first time since early two thousand, Belize will need a new Chief Justice. There is no direct successor on the bench and the Prime Minister today confirmed that the government is advertising the post. But the question arises, in the interim, who will hold the high office?

We asked him that and many other things today at a ceremonial signing with the US government in Belmopan.

Jules Vasquez

"What is the plan for the head of the judiciary?"

Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"We have advertised including I believe in the Caribbean and naturally after the applications are in, assuming we get applications I will go through the CVs and consider anything else that's relevant. I will in this process hope to be assisted certainly by the Attorney General and thereafter I would hope to be able to propose to the Leader of the Opposition one of the applicants to be appointed by the Governor General as Chief Justice. I wouldn't think that we'd be in a position to have somebody start before the first of next year, that's how I see the process."

Jules Vasquez
"Is there a decision or a determination to be made who will be acting Chief Justice, will it be in terms of seniority or...?"

Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"That would be the preferred option and we already have a kind of precedent established, every time the incumbent has gone abroad, he has left Mr. Justice Awich to hold over. He is abroad even as we speak and in fact Mr. Justice Awich has been appointed to act as Chief Justice until Chief Justice Conteh returns to the country I believe on the 5th of September. Circumstances could change but the way things are I would see continuing with that particular formula if you will, I would see Mr. Justice Awich acting as Chief Justice after Chief Justice Conteh leaves at the end of September until the new Chief Justice has been determined upon and until the new Chief Justice actually begins his tenure."

As noted by the Prime Minister, Awich is currently the acting Chief Justice until the first week in September. We gather that even his interim appointment - just for this holdover period - has created some friction between the government and the opposition.

Speaking about Chief Justice Conteh's 10 year tenure, Prime Minister Barrow said he served with "unquestioned integrity", noted what he called "trailblazing judgments" and summed him up as a "very, very good Chief Justice."

The generous description does not reflect what has been characterized to us a distinct chord of rancor that arose on the CJ's departure, as - we are told - he would have wished to have been afforded more time to finish up his duties on the bench. The government - our sources say - felt that he had too many outstanding matters for this to be practicable. Still, the bar characterized his departure as having been treated in an "unseemly manner."


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