Will Donald Trump Put Vanuatu on the Map?

Few Americans could find the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu on a map. Fewer still know anything of its constitutional jurisprudence. Donald Trump could change all that if he exercises the right he claims to have to pardon himself (here). Vanuatu is the only country whose courts have ruled on the validity of a presidential self-pardon, and the merits of their ruling would surely be fodder for editorials, op-eds, and cable television’s blabbers  learned commentators.

Vanuatu’s courts had the unprecedented case thrust upon them thanks to the action of Marcellino Pipite. Speaker of the Vanuatu legislature, in accordance with the country’s constitution he served as acting president whenever the sitting president was abroad. During one period of service a long running trial where he and 13 other parliamentarians were on trial for bribery ended in a guilty verdict against all fourteen.  Pipite then promptly exercised the president’s constitutional pardon power, excusing himself and the other defendants from any criminal wrongdoing. 

The validity of a Trump self-pardon would surely come before the Supreme Court, and it has long looked to decisions of foreign courts when deciding its cases (here). Indeed, one of the most influential justices of the 20th century, whose acolytes include the current Chief Justice, was a firm believer in looking to decisions of foreign courts for guidance when deciding constitutional issues. Nor did then Chief Justice Rehnquist limit what foreign court decisions should be examined. 

“Now that constitutional law is solidly grounded in so many countries, it is time that the United States courts begin looking to the decisions of other constitutional courts to aid in their own deliberative process” (here).

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Order from the Court: Judiciaries as a Bulwark Against Legislative Corruption in Vanuatu

Imagine that one-third of the members of your national legislature were convicted of bribery, and then decided to pardon themselves, and you’ll only begin to appreciate the scope and oddity of Vanuatu’s current political drama.

On October 9, Vanuatu’s Supreme Court convicted 14 of the 33 members of the ni-Vanuatu Parliament of bribery. The politicians, who at the time of their unlawful conduct included the deputy prime minister and four other members of the cabinet, had last year accepted around US$9,000 each to support a vote of no confidence in the prime minister—that is, to kick him out of office. Though the prime minister discovered the scheme and suspended the participants, they successfully sued for an end to their suspension, and promptly followed through on their plan to eject the sitting government.  Now holding Parliament’s top-ranked positions themselves, the bribe-takers nevertheless fell under police investigation, and a trial against them began this September.

After the bribe-takers were convicted but before they were sentenced, the president, who was not a member of their coalition, took a trip abroad. Under Vanuatu’s constitution, that left the Parliament speaker in charge. The problem? That Parliament speaker was one of the people convicted of bribery—and he promptly decided to use his temporary power to suspend the Ombudsman (the officer charged with investigating corruption) and pardon himself and his co-conspirators. The president quickly returned to Vanuatu and revoked the pardons, but it’s not clear that he had the legal authority to do so. With the Court of Appeals having recently rejected the appeals of the members of Parliament (MPs), the MPs are now kicked out of the legislature, and new elections may have to be held.

As idiosyncratic as this story may seem, it still speaks to some deeper truths about the problem of corruption in the Pacific Islands—and may yet resolve itself in a way that provides some clues about effective ways to fight it. So, what went wrong in Vanuatu, and what can still go right?

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