Senior Counsel Richard ‘Dickie’ Bradley has come out in opposition to the current language of the controversial Belize Constitution (Eleventh Amendment) Bill, which, if passed, would disqualify persons who have served a year or more in prison from becoming members of parliament.
Bradley, a former senator and well-known criminal attorney, shared that the Bill takes on a one-size-fit-all approach, which he says is bad for business, and needs to be “fine-tuned” if it is to become a part of the supreme law of the country.
“I would join with those that would say right away when reading the amendment that it is a gillnet. It will catch everything, and you don’t want to catch everything,” Bradley opined. “Surely in the modern world that we live in, one size does not fit all; the fact is the world has changed, and right now going to jail is no longer a big thing; it is what you go to jail for.”
Bradley’s position is consistent with the school of thought that advises that laws establishing ineligibility criteria for would-be Members of Parliament who have served time should be detailed and specific as it pertains to the “nature” of the offences.
Drilling down on this point, Bradley asked, “The proposal is saying that you cannot run for parliament if you have served a sentence for 12 months or more. If, down the road, the Government says that anybody who does not take the [COVID-19] vaccination will be charged and sentenced to more than 12 months, does that mean that those persons who are charged will be disbarred from running for office?”
The senior criminal attorney advised that there should be a clear list of offenses. Bradley said that Belizeans need to debate and decide on this big issue. “Do we want to have a list of offenses that we would want to consider as serious or do we want to cover every offense for which once you spend twelve months you cannot put up yourself for election? Those are the things that must be discussed.”
The criminal law covers a wide spectrum of offenses, Bradley reminded. Moreover, it is a fact that what might be an offense in Belize might not be an offense in other parts of the world and vice versa. This fact alone stresses the need for the amendment to be specific, he underscored. Duration of Inadmissibility
Bradley also proposed that there is need for the duration of inadmissibility to be considered, alongside the role played by rehabilitation in those cases where offenses are not considered to be serious.
He pointed out that the only way all these discussions could take place is if the government—which by law has to wait 90 days after the first reading of a proposed constitutional amendment—meaningfully consults with the public. The government needs to offer the public the opportunity to voice their concerns over the Bill which if passed could affect the lives of Belizeans for generations to come.
Bradley concurred with the argument that anyone holding a position of higher office should be of a certain character and decorum. He shared that he is also cognizant of the fact that a convicted person in parliament could send the wrong message about the country on a whole. Nevertheless, Bradley told the Reporter that he would want to propose that the amendment be fine-tuned in a way that strikes a balance between those that are considered serious offenders and those that are worthy of rehabilitation.
Old versus New
The Bill, introduced in the House of Representatives on July 2nd, 2021, has received much criticism and support from various groups of Belizeans.
The proposed amendment, inter alia, seeks to add the following provision to section 58 of the Constitution of Belize: “No person shall be qualified to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives who … has served a sentence of imprisonment for more than twelve months, imposed by a court in or outside of Belize.”
Attorney General Magali Marin-Young, when asked by the Reporter whether the language infringes on the rights of an individual to be elected, replied, “The amendment does not violate human rights. There is already a provision that disqualifies someone convicted of a crime by a court in the Commonwealth from being in the House or the Senate. The amendment expands the place of conviction, beyond the Commonwealth to anywhere.”
Marin-Young had also argued that Constitution already speaks to ineligibility criteria. Section 58 of the present Constitution of Belize reads: “No person shall be qualified to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives who… is under sentence of death imposed on him by a court in any part of the Commonwealth or is serving a sentence of imprisonment (by whatever name called) exceeding twelve months imposed on him by such a court or substituted by competent authority for some other sentence imposed on him by such a court, or is under such a sentence of imprisonment the execution of which has been suspended.”
Since then, Leader of the Opposition Moses “Shyne” Barrow—a present Member of Parliament who has served time in a United States’ jail—has written the Attorney General to disagree with her position that there is no violation of rights. Barrow also highlighted the fact that the Constitution of Belize’s section 58 is speaking in the “present tense”, thereby, making the point that the drafters of Supreme Law never intended for someone who has already served their sentence to be disqualified.
Former Senate president and newly appointed UDP senator Hon. Darrell Bradley—who is also an attorney at law, recently published a statement to articulate a similar observation. He wrote: “This section [section 58 of the Constitution] clearly makes sense. A person who is currently serving a sentence of death or who is currently imprisoned cannot stand for elected office. He is in jail. But it must be made absolutely clear that there is no prohibition in the constitution, as it currently reads, that disqualifies anyone who has previously been convicted of any offence anywhere in the world and who has served out his or her sentence.”