Samoa Observer: The nation’s chief justice – a gift from above

Samoa's Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese - locked door
Samoa's Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese attempting to open the locked front door of Parliament last May. Image: Samoa Global News

EDITORIAL: By the Samoa Observer editorial board

How quickly things change.

If, as the old cliche goes, a week is a long time in politics then a month is an eternity.

As a story on the front page of the Weekend Observer revealed, the caretaker government is once again seeking to shape the outcome of judicial decision-making.

Caretaker Prime Minister Tuila’epa Dr Sa’ilele Malielegaoi and the Attorney-General, Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Savalenoa, have presented the Supreme Court with a motion requesting that certain judges not preside over a contempt of court motion filed against them.

The justices the pair are seeking to have removed via a recusal motion are the Chief Justice, Satiu Simativa Perese, Justice Vui Clarence Nelson and Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren (“Tuilaepa wants judges off contempt case”).

Saturday’s revelation is the latest in a long and complex string of attempts by the caretaker Prime Minister to influence the judicial branch of government in his favour. But is also reflective of a curious trend: that Tuila’epa’s hand-picked jurist has fallen out of the caretaker Prime Minister’s favour.

Efforts to influence and bombard the court have recently reached their peak as the nation undergoes a constitutional crisis over Parliament’s failure to convene after April’s national election.

But these attempts to make the court empathetic to the caretaker Prime Minister were in fact underway long ago. They date back to when Tuila’epa was searching for a Chief Justice to replace Patu Tiava’asu’e Falefatu Sapolu who resigned in April 2019.

That time feels like a different era: before the measles epidemic, the global covid-19 pandemic and our current constitutional crisis.

Tuila’epa took an unhurried approach to choosing a permanent replacement for Patu, the longest-serving Chief Justice in Samoan history, with nearly 27 years of judicial experience under his belt.

In fact, Tuilaepa openly admitted that he was taking a passive approach to selecting the appropriate candidate and waiting for divine inspiration to guide him to select the best candidate.

“I am still praying and once I acquire the whispers from God, then a decision will be made,” Tuilaepa said at the time.

“If it takes up to six months, that’s not a bad thing at all,”

In fact, it took much longer than that. Samoa was without a permanent Chief Justice for more than a year while the Prime Minister waited for that divine whisper.

He eventually settled on Justice Satiu who was sworn-in in June last year.

The Prime Minister did not disclose the contents of any whispers he may have received from on high to guide his choice.

But at his swearing-in ceremony, Tuila’epa defended the amount of time he took in selecting a replacement, again maintaining that Justice Satiu’s installment was guided from above.

“It takes time to seek God’s face and turn to the Bible for guidance. And these things take time and the whispers [from the Holy Spirit],” he said.

As it happens, Justice Satiu has been resolute in changing the direction of the court.

But it has not been in the way that the caretaker Prime Minister perhaps envisioned; he has proven to be more of a thorn in Tuila’epa’s side than a blessing.

Justice Satiu, born in Magiagi, is deeply rooted in Samoan tradition, but he has also been influenced by the principles of judicial independence taught at the universities he attended in New Zealand and America. This commitment has been shown in his rulings on a flurry of post-election legal petitions.

His Honour, has time and time again, shown his loyalty to the principle of judicial independence during a time of intense legal wrangling.

But in doing so, the Chief Justice has countered widely held expectations about how he would rule from the bench.

In an April statement, issued shortly after national elections which are the root cause of our current power crisis he issued a short statement outlining his simple judicial philosophy.

“We are in a state of uncertainty after the General Election, but I wish to reassure ourselves as a community, that the role of the Judiciary as the Independent Branch of Government is to do right by all manner of people, without fear or favour affection or ill will,” he said.

“As sworn members of the Judiciary, we uphold that Oath to the best of our abilities so to adhere to the Rule of Law.”

All jurists know to affirm their commitment to judicial independence; sticking to them in practice is a different question altogether.

It was widely assumed that because such a long time was taken to approve his selection, Justice Satiu would lean towards the constitutional interpretations of Tuila’epa and that of his Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP).

But much to the caretaker Prime Minister’s frustration, Justice Satiu has upset all expectations by remaining cool and composed throughout the current legal onslaught and applied the law completely straight.

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the leader of the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party condemned his early release from quarantine in May as a political manoeuvre “so that he [could] sit in on the electoral petitions.”

That led to Tuila’epa to leap to his defence as a principled jurist, while he was attacking unnamed members in Samoa’s judiciary of being biased against him:

“It’s apparent from the criticism that the Chief Justice is an honest person,” he said on his programme on state-owned radio 2AP.

“[Fiame’s…] criticism is due to the fact [the Chief Justice] is independent.”

But now Tuila’epa is seeking to avoid having him preside over a trial in which he is involved. How quickly perceptions change.

Before the month of May was out and the FAST party held its own swearing-in ceremony on the lawns of a locked down Parliamentary precinct, the appraisal of the Chief Justice’s integrity has changed considerably.

The office of the government’s lawyer, the Attorney-General, maligned his integrity in a later retracted media statement claiming he had too often ruled in FAST’s favour and was even a “close relative” of Fiame’s.

He also drew criticism for walking to Parliament to try and open its doors on May 24 after being on a panel that determined Parliament had to sit on that day. (The doors had been locked on orders of the former Speaker Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi, who is himself facing a motion of contempt).

“The actions of the Chief Justice indicate that he may be in contempt of Parliament,” a statement from the Attorney-General’s office said.

But throughout this personal disparagement during our current constitutional crisis, Justice Satiu has maintained cool and composed and methodically applied the law and stayed true to his oath to protect and uphold Samoa’s constitution.

Perhaps His Honour Satiu Simativa Perese was indeed a gift from God — just not the kind that the caretaker Prime Minister was hoping to receive.

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