Selection of Judges is Not Rocket Science [opinion]

Why shouldn’t the public be fully, promptly, and proactively informed about the activities of the JSC?

The controversy surrounding the announcement of Justice Steven Kavuma’s appointment as Deputy Chief Justice of Uganda (DCJ) by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has spotlighted once again the opaque and archaic manner in which the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) conducts its affairs.

Up to now, the public cannot tell with certainty whether or not Justice Kavuma duly applied for, was interviewed or was recommended by the JSC for the post of DCJ in line with Article 147(1)(a) of the Constitution.

According to the lead story in The Observer of March 16, all members and officers of the JSC who were contacted by the reporter to find out whether the beleaguered judge was legitimately selected for the DCJ post were either “not in the know” or unwilling to divulge any information regarding the same. Peter Nyombi, a former member of the JSC during his short and shaky stint as Attorney General, simply replied “No comment”. The JSC Secretary Kagole Kivumbi referred the reporter to the JSC Chairman, Justice James Ogoola, who in turn reportedly pleaded inability to talk about the matter.

Involving the public in the process of searching and selecting judicial officers does not appear high on the agenda of the JSC. This is a blatant violation of the Constitution which requires the State to be run on democratic principles and calls for the active involvement and participation of all citizens in national affairs.

Why shouldn’t the public be fully, promptly, and proactively informed about the activities of the JSC? Is the release of such information likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to privacy of prospective or current judicial officers?

Given that publicity is essential to the business of administering justice in the name of the people, there is something fundamentally wrong with the mysterious way in which the JSC handles the search and selection processes preceding the appointment of judicial officers.

Ugandan citizens have unacceptably too little knowledge about the experience, political ideology, party and personal loyalties, ethnicity, gender and idiosyncrasies of the select few who are privileged to sit in judgment over them on a daily basis. Little wonder that they are gly dissatisfied with the judiciary according to notable service delivery surveys.

The Ogoola-led JSC should borrow a leaf, if not an entire branch from Kenya, where massive publicity is given to the recruitment and vetting processes so that by the time a judicial vacancy is filled, the public is ready and willing to back both the chosen judicial officer and the judiciary as a whole in the performance of their constitutional duty as the supreme guardians of the law.

In the United States of America, where citizens enjoy a full-blown democracy, the process of filling judicial vacancies has traditionally been done in full public view. Some states even hold “retention elections” where people decide whether a given judge should remain or not.

Back home things are in a perilous state. In recent times, the media was awash with the riveting story of a judge who left mourners at the burial of her late husband in no doubt that the JSC had been arm-twisted into recommending her for judicial office as kitu kidogo (groceries for the family) by the president who had had pity on her following the unfortunate accident which not only incapacitated her husband but also caused her and her family financial embarrassment.

In yet another Nollywood episode, the country was scandalised when Uganda Law Society resolved that none of its members would appear before Justice Anup Singh Choudry because he had allegedly disgraced the legal profession in England where he had previously practiced as a solicitor.

Last year, the JSC was embarrassed when Justices Augustine Nshimye and Steven Kavuma of the Court of Appeal were asked to recuse themselves from a case involving the NRM party and some “rebel” MPs because official records indicated that they both signed the NRM Constitution as founder cadre members and had never formally resigned from the party.

All these incidents raise thorny questions not only about the competence and independence of the JSC but also the diligence of inquiries conducted by the JSC on behalf of the people of Uganda while vetting candidates for judicial office.

The author is an Aocate of the High Court of Uganda and CEO Legal Brains Trust, a Kampala-based human rights watchdog.

Source : The Independent

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