Time and Transcendence: Narrating Higher Authority at the Caribbean Court of Justice

Published date01 September 2016
Date01 September 2016
Time and Transcendence: Narrating Higher
Authority at the Caribbean Court of Justice
Lee Cabatingan
This article examines the relationship between time and authority in courts of
law. Newness, in particular, poses an obstacle to a court’s efforts to establish
authority because it tethers the institution to a timeline in which the human
origins of the court and the political controversies preceding it are easily
recalled. Moreover, the abbreviated timeline necessarily limits the body of
legal authority (namely, the number of judgments) that could have been pro-
duced. This article asks how a court might establish its authority when faced
with such problematic newness. Based on extensive ethnographic research at
the Caribbean Court of Justice, I demonstrate how the staff and judges at this
relatively young tribunal work to create a narrative in which the Court tran-
scends its own troublesome timeline. They do this by attempting to construct
a time-transcendent principle of Caribbeanness and proffering the Court as a
manifestation of this higher authority. The Court’s narrative of its timeless-
ness, however, is regularly challenged by far more familiar tales of its becom-
ing, suggesting that in this court, as in all courts, the work of building and
maintaining authority is ongoing.
On a brilliant morning in Port of Spain, Trinidad in November
2013, Serena, the sharply dressed and well-spoken Customer Service
representative at the Caribbean Court of Justice (hereafter “CCJ” or
“the Court”), guided a group of Trinidadian attorneys through a
The author wishes to thank the President, judges, and employees of the Caribbean
Court of Justice who permitted and participated in this research. Earlier versions of this
article benefited from comments made by John Comaroff, Justin Richland, Susan Gal,
Stephan Palmi
e, Costas Nakassis, Francois Richard, Erin Moore, Kate McHarry, Amy
McLachlan, Meghan Morris, Joey Weiss, Angela Fillingim, and Hanna Garth, as well as the
insightful comments provided by the anonymous reviewers and the editorial board at the
Law & Society Review. The research for this article was funded by grants from the Wenner-
Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the National Science Foundation, and the
University of Chicago.
Please direct all correspondence to Lee Cabatingan, University of California, Irvine,
Department of Criminology, Law and Society, 2340 Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697-
7080; e-mail: lcabatin@uci.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 50, Number 3 (2016)
C2016 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
courthouse tour.
I had accompanied Serena several times before on
tours through the Court and appreciated her natural, efficient, and
informative narration. She could move swiftly through the building
pointing out highlights, details, facts, and little-known facts, educating
her audience throughout and mixing in enough audience-
appropriate “Trini flavor”—dropping in bits of local creole, drawing
on shared Carnival knowledge, or mentioning familiar names and
places—to keep the tour light, enjoyable, and engaging.
As usual, Serena’s tour began in the Registry of the Court,
and, as usual, after several opening remarks and a brief introduc-
tion to the workings of this office, she directed the attorneys’
attention to a mini-museum located within the Registry lobby.
She explained: “Now, a lot of people think that the idea of setting
up a regional final court of appeal was a recent idea,”
But we have a letter ... from as far back as 1901. It was writ-
ten in the Jamaican Gleaner in the “Letters to the Editor” sug-
gesting that the Privy Council, because of the distance from
the colonies, they would have been too far to really dispense
true justice. And the author suggested that we set up our
own regional final court of appeal.
As the attorneys absorbed this information, she continued:
In 1970, at a conference of heads of government, the idea for
a regional final court of appeal was put forward. However, it
was not until 1989 that the heads of government agreed to
establish the court. In 1999, Trinidad & Tobago announced
that we would house the court here. And the heads of gov-
ernment approved the Agreement Establishing the Court. In 2001
the agreement was signed.
With an indication of her hand, Serena directed her audience’s
gaze to a series of photographs displayed on the walls. She
On the walls we basically have a pictorial depicting the estab-
lishment of the court from the very inception of the signing
of the Treaty of Chaguaramas. What I find interesting about
this is that even as far back as the public consultations you
see people who are involved in the court up until now....
All names are pseudonyms. However, I have chosen to follow the practice of the
Court, wherein senior managers are usually referred to by their titles and surnames and
other staff and employees are commonly called by their first names.
Cabatingan 675

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