PRIME Minister Portia Simpson Miller yesterday defended her decision to appoint a Government parliamentarian as Jamaica's next attorney general, saying that the post should be held by a person who is accountable to the people.
Simpson Miller's defence came during the swearing-in ceremony at King's House of Patrick Atkinson as the Government's top legal advisor. Atkinson, who contested the December 2011 general election on a People's National Party (PNP) ticket, won the Trelawny Northern seat.
Conventional wisdom, according to the prime minister, suggested that the attorney general should be a non-Cabinet minister. For that reason, Simpson Miller noted, her party is in agreement with the recommendation of the Dudus/Manatt Commission of Enquiry that there should be a separation of the positions of attorney general and justice minister.
But at the same time, Simpson Miller said that merely separating the posts does not answer the question of accountability.
"We believe that the attorney general should be accountable to the Parliament. We are also of the view that he or she sit in the House of Representatives with the other elected members," said Simpson Miller to much applause.
"The principal legal advisor to the Government should be accountable to the people of Jamaica by being required to be answerable in Parliament for the legal approaches adopted by the Government," said Simpson Miller.
She had been coming under flak since last week following a report by the Observer that Atkinson had been tipped to replace Ransford Braham, who resigned the post following the ouster at the polls of the Jamaica Labour Party Government.
Yesterday, just hours before Atkinson's scheduled swearing-in, the National Democratic Movement (NDM) issued a release in which it asked the prime minister "to make good sense prevail" and reconsider the appointment.
According to the NDM, there is a very strong view that Atkinson's appointment would be another "job for the boys". The struggling political party also pointed to Atkinson's lack of experience in the area of civil law. (Atkinson had spent the past 40-odd years practising criminal law both in Jamaica and the United States.)
The NDM also pointed out that Atkinson's recent prominence in the Dudus/Manatt Enquiry, plus his involvement in other high-profile criminal cases, including the Cuban light bulb corruption trial of former PNP junior minister Kern Spencer, the X6 murder case, and the PNP's Trafigura case, may make his appointment too toxic.
But yesterday -- during and after his swearing-in ceremony, which was attended by several Government ministers, members of the judiciary and scores of attorneys -- Atkinson sought to defend his appointment.
"I am fully aware of my role as a barrister, as an attorney, as a Queen's Counsel in this justice system, and consequently, as I have always done, practice without reference to politics or any other such irrelevancies," he said during the swearing-in ceremony. "My advice will never be influenced by anything other than the Constitution."
Addressing the matter of his apparent lack of experience in civil practice, Atkinson told reporters following the function that he has sufficient knowledge of civil law and practices.