Charter court faces 'contempt' dilemma
On Aug 28, Assoc Prof Kovit Wongsurawat received a letter from the Office of the Constitutional Court summoning him to meet the office's secretary-general over an "inappropriate" tweet.
The political science lecturer at Kasetsart University had earlier tweeted about a case pending at the Constitutional Court regarding 32 MPs accused of holding shares in media companies.
Roughly translated, the tweet said: "The Constitutional Court accepted complaints against 32 MPs regarding stocks in media companies although [they were not ordered] to stop performing their duty. It's beyond the word 'shameless'."
The tweet apparently intended to draw attention to the fact that Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), was earlier suspended from MP duties while awaiting the court's ruling on a similar complaint against him.
The court's order against Mr Thanathorn has deprived the FFP of a powerful voice in the House of Representatives. It has infuriated FFP supporters but also baffled many others, including legal experts and political commentators.
Mr Kovit appears to be the first person to be summoned by the Constitutional Court since it was established under the so-called People's Constitution of 1997. It is the only court to be composed of legal and political science experts in addition to judges.
Originally, the court was not afforded specific legal protection against public criticism apart from that provided in the civil code against contempt and defamation of court. Things changed on March 2 last year, when the Constitutional Court procedure code became law.
The new law gives the court wide authority to decide what constitutes contempt of court. Violations carry a jail sentence of up to one month or a fine of up to 50,000 baht or both.
Mr Kovit is the first person to face the possibility of being cited for contempt of the Constitutional Court.
The political scientist showed up on the appointed date at the court and was whisked into a room for a discussion, the details of which were not disclosed to the waiting throng of reporters and supporters.
While it appears that the court has this time chosen not to find the political scientist in contempt, it has shown it is ready to use its new-found power. That's probably enough to mute future public criticism.
The Constitutional Court was founded on the principle that regular courts are not equipped to deal with constitutional conflicts which involve issues beyond the merely legal.
According to some legal scholars, the court represented a departure from military dictatorship.
Inevitably, however, it was drawn into constitutional conflicts that called into question its judicial objectivity.
It was responsible for dissolving two political parties, both predecessors of the Pheu Thai Party, and deep-freezing the political career of dozens of politicians.
Most recently, it dissolved the Thai Raksa Chart Party for having proposed Princess-turned-commoner Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate.
The controversial decision took place only a few weeks before the election and in spite of the fact that the party had already withdrawn the princess's name and the Election Commission had not registered her as the party's PM candidate.
While the case aroused heated debate, any overt criticism was muted, partly because of the court's power to issue contempt charges and partly because it trod dangerously close to the royal family.
The decision brought into public focus the tenure of members of the court. Most of the justices were supposed to retire from the court in 2017 but saw their tenure extended by order of the military junta.
Unsurprisingly, many people saw the court as coming under the influence of the military junta. Its decision in the Thai Raksa Chart case, whether intended or not, was also seen by some observers to have helped the junta's attempt to remain in power.
Meanwhile, many more cases are awaiting the court's decision. One coming up very soon deals with the question of whether Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha entered this administration as a "state official", which will have bearing on his position as the prime minister.
Another -- the one which has landed Mr Kovit in hot water with the court -- concerns whether Mr Thanathorn's stock holding in a media company that has already ceased operation is a just cause to strip him of his seat in the House.
But more ominous is a rumour making the rounds that the FFP is poised to be placed on the court's chopping block.
If a complaint is made to dissolve the FFP and the court accepts it, we can expect a deluge of public criticism against the court even before it delivers a decision.
The judges would then be faced with a dilemma over whether to launch contempt-of-court proceedings against the horde of critics.
Wasant Techawongtham is former news editor, Bangkok Post.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.