Vote over President of Land and Titles Court divides Parliament

The President of the Lands and Titles Court (L.T.C.), Fepuela’i Atilla Ropati, has been reinstated by Parliament.

But the vote, which allowed this to happen, divided the House on Tuesday.

The outcome of the vote did not meet the two-thirds majority required under the Constitution, for Parliament to terminate the services of the President.

Twenty-one Members of Parliament voted against returning the President while 18 voted in favour of Fepulea’i continuing in the role.

Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and his Deputy, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa voted against reinstating Fepulea'i.

Prior to the vote, Prime Minister Tuilaepa moved a motion on behalf of the Government to terminate Fepulea’i’s services.

It followed his conviction and fine for smashing a bottle over the head of a security officer during a function.

“I urge that you consider this matter with caution,” Tuilaepa said, reminding that the world is watching how Samoa’s Parliament handles such a matter.

“We make the laws; we should live by those laws. You have heard my ministerial speech where I pointed out the criminal convictions of the President.The decision by the District Court to fine him considering the charge is a result of his bad behaviour.”

Deputy Prime Minister Fiame criticised the recommendation by the Parliamentary Special Inquiry Committee, which recommended that Fepulea’i continues in the role.

“We stand by the law, we are lawmakers, we live, abide and respect the law," Fiame said. “I strongly support the motion by the Government to terminate the services of the President of the Lands and Titles Court.

"I strongly reject the report submitted by the (Special Inquiry) Committee. Their report should be removed from the hansard, as it only brings shame to this Parliament.”

The report in question was submitted by a Special Committee chaired by Deputy Speaker, Nafoitoa Talaimanu Keti. Members of the committee included Ali'imalemanu Alofa Tuuau, Faumuina Tiatia Liuga, Ili Setefano Ta'ateo, Fuimaono Samuaelu Te’o, Faaulusau Rosa Stowers and Tole'afoa Ken Poutoa.

The report said that “the Special Inquiry Committee resolved to recommend, that the Legislative Assembly endorse the continuation of the appointment of Fepuleai Letufuga A. M. Ropati as President of the Lands and Titles Court".

When questions were raised about the report, Chairman Nafoitoa defended their recommendation.

But Fiame would not have it.

“I want to direct your attention to Article 15 of the Constitution which has to do with individual rights,” she said.

“The report says there is no special treatment. In this case however, Mr Speaker, how can we say that there is no special treatment in the matter of the President of the L.T.C.? You heard the speeches before me; we must be compassionate, he served the government and the also served Parliament.

"What does that say? Is it because he used to be Clerk of Parliament, that we should give him a second chance?

“That is why Mr. Speaker, this Parliament has violated Article 15 of the Constitution. Why? Because we are giving him special treatment. And this deviates from the standard of what members of the public encounter as convicted criminals.”

The Deputy Prime Minister said the decision sends out the wrong message.

“The penalty for this crime is seven years yet the message being sent out by this Parliament is that the President can strike the security guard on the head and he’s allowed to do that?

“Why? Because he has the authority? Because he’s a chief? Because of his position? That is the message being sent out if this Parliament follows the recommendation of the Committee.”

The Deputy P.M. also pointed to the sworn affidavit of Fepuela’i which stated that he would resign if he is convicted.

"I ask the Chairman and the Committee if they were aware of it?

“And what is the law when it comes to such matters where they don’t follow their sworn affidavit? What is the penalty for someone that does not follow the sworn affidavit? Mr. Speaker that is what you call making false statement under oath.”

But other Members of Parliament offered different views.

“His reputation has been tarnished as a result. Although we have a pool of lawyers but one must consider this person and his work,” said Sulamanaia Tauili’ili Tuivasa.

La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Schmidt said protecting the integrity of Parliament is vital.

“I am careful on this matter. The Court has already ruled on this matter. There are three arms of governance in any country, the executive, judiciary and legislative – we don’t meddle with the other side. It begs the question where do we draw the line.

“After the District Court ruled on this matter, discharged without a conviction and within 24- hours an appeal was filed.

"The question is who filed the appeal and I want to emphasise there is a line that we cannot cross. And I am ashamed of the message that will be sent around the world, it appears we cannot differentiate between what is right and wrong.

“We know Fepulea’i has been convicted as a result of the appeal.”

La’auli protecting the integrity of Parliament should be paramount.

Faumuina Leatinu’u Wayne Fong also opposed the reinstatement of Fepulea’i.

“The laws in place were established here in this Parliament for the judges to interpret and uphold. And now the Court has already ruled in this matter.

“The District Court ruled to discharge without conviction. While it was hard to believe but I accepted it.   

“However, when the Attorney General’s office filed an appeal, I wasn’t happy about it as this meant we will spend more resources on this matter.”

Faumuina pointed to those who committed crimes in the past.

“Anyone that commits a crime is charged and appears before the Court — this is the same with Church Ministers, Chief Executive Officers, and Members of Parliament who have been charged before the Court.

Gatoloaifaana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow said the no one should be punished twice.

“The Court has handed down a conviction. Looking at it from a chief's perspective, no one should be punished twice.

“We should also consider the love of God, even the hardcore crimes such as murder, all of that have been forgiven by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross.”

Saluasa Dr. John Ah Ching said the law is the law.

Leailepule Rimoni Aiafi said Fepulea’i has already paid the fine and that should be the end of it.

“That’s why I am happy; democracy is alive and well in Samoa and that is the rule of law.”

Aumua Isaia Lameko said it was important to give someone a second chance.

Faaso’otauloa Pati Taulapapa said it was a difficult matter.

“It is not my decision to vote on this matter, the vote belongs to my constituency and they have spoken on what they want,” he said.

Alaiasa Sepulona Moananu noted that under the Constitution a judge could be removed for bad behaviour.

The President of the L.T.C. was placed on special leave in March 2018, and was suspended on 10 May 2019.

Fepulea’i was convicted and fined $7,000 by the Appellate Court two months ago. This is in connection with causing actual bodily harm with intent on Saili Leota, a security guard of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration (M.J.C.A.).

*This story has been updated from its original form to reflect the debate in Parliament.

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