As I predicted, the Constitutional Court today dismissed the application of Judge President John Hlophe to appeal against two judgments handed down by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) regarding the decision of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) not to investigate the charges of gross misconduct against the Judge President.
In the first judgment, the SCA found that the Constitution requires the Premier of the Western Cape to sit on the JSC when it considers disciplinary action against a Western cape judge, with the effect that JSC had to reconsider both the Constitutional Court Justices’ complaint, and Hlophe’s counter-complaint.
In the second case, the SCA set aside the decision of the JSC “that the evidence in respect of the complaint does not justify a finding that HlopheJP is guilty of gross misconduct”, with the effect that the JSC had to reconsider the complaint against Hlophe by the judges of the Constitutional Court. In this second judgment it was pointed out that in a case like this where two versions of an event is presented it is required to cross-examine witnesses and make a determination on the preponderance of probabilities to determine who is lying and who is speaking the truth.
In a unanimous judgment by the Constitutional Court (Mogoeng CJ, Cameron J, Froneman J, Khampepe J, Skweyiya J, van der Westhuizen J, Yacoob J and Zondo AJ writing as “The Court”), it was decided that acting judges could not be appointed to hear the case and that it was not in the interest of justice for the “compromised” Constitutional Court to hear the merits of the two appeals from the SCA judgments.
The Court pointed out that section 167(1) of the Constitution provides that the Court consists of eleven Judges and that the Court usually sits en banc (in other words, with all 11 judges). However, section 167(2) provides that a matter before the Constitutional Court must be heard by at least eight Judges. The problem in this case arose because six of the serving Justices currently appointed to the Court were serving as Constitutional Court Judges when the complaint against the applicant was lodged with the JSC. Three of them recused themselves from the hearing before it was argued (but one acting judge – Ray Zondo - is currently serving on the Court). This left the Court with a bare constitutional quorum of eight, including three Justices who were parties to the complaint lodged with the JSC against the applicant and two others who had been involved in attempted mediation.
If these Judges were disqualified from hearing the applications for leave to appeal because of their perceived or actual interest in the outcome of the matter, there would be no quorum for this Court to hear and determine the matters. Because of this unusual situation all the parties accepted that it was necessary for the Court (even with its possible five “tainted” judges) to decide whether Acting Judges may be appointed to the Constitutional Court in terms of section 175 of the Constitution to hear the application for leave to appeal and the appeal; and, if not, whether the existing judges should adjudicate upon the substantive merits of the applications for leave to appeal.
In terms of section1 75, the President may, on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development acting with the concurrence of the Chief Justice, appoint a woman or a man to be an Acting Judge of the Constitutional Court “if there is a vacancy or if a Judge is absent”. Pointing out that the “ordinary meaning of the word ‘absent’ carries some ambiguity”, the Court nevertheless found that:
any possible ambiguity is removed when we consider that the recusal from a particular case does not preclude Constitutional Court Judges from continuing to perform duties of their office. A recused Judge remains required to perform the rest of her judicial duties. The action of recusal is the performance of a judicial duty. The effect of a recusal therefore cannot be considered to be an absence… Recusal leading to a lack of a necessary quorum in this Court is an exceptional occurrence. Vacancies of Constitutional Court posts resulting from retirement, possible ill-health and death are not. Nor are temporary physical absences of Justices of the Court, caused by periods of leave, personal circumstances or some illness unusual. Viewed in a general context, it is clear that the purpose of section 175(1) is to deal with these normal instances of vacancies and physical absences.
This interpretation is supported if one took into account the context of the Constitution as a whole. In this regard one must remember that constitutional provisions relating to the appointment of Judges must be interpreted with due regard to the constitutional imperatives of separation of powers and entrenchment of judicial independence. There was a potential danger to judicial independence and the separation of powers whenever individual judges are appointment to hear a specific case. Mindful of this danger, it is not possible to interpret “absent” in section 175(1) as covering a situation where Constitutional Court Judges recuse themselves from hearing a specific matter.
The next question to be answered by the Court was whether the eight judges (three of them having been involved in lodging the complaint against Hlophe JP) nevertheless had to hear the substantive appeals because of section 34 of the Constitution, which states that everyone has the right to have any dispute that can be resolved by the application of law decided in a fair public hearing before a court or, where appropriate, another independent and impartial tribunal or forum.
The Court found (once again as predicted) that they could not hear the case and pointed out that section 167(6) of the Constitution does not provide litigants with a right to have their case heard by the Constitutional Court. Litigants only have a right to consideration of any application for leave to appeal. As the Constitutional Court found in S v Pennington and Another litigants do not have an automatic right of appeal. Leave must only be granted if the Court concludes that it is in the interests of justice to do so.
A balance needs to be struck between the Court’s obligation to provide finality in this matter (as it would be intolerable to have a case pending indefinitely) and possible injustice to the applicant. These factors weigh heavily in determining the extent to which it is in the interests of justice to enter into the merits, and thus whether to grant leave to appeal. All the parties were in agreement that this matter cannot remain pending. There is a need for finality. This was not disputed. In determining the extent to which we should consider the merits, regard must be had to whether substantial injustice will be done to the applicant should this Court refuse to grant leave to appeal. The underlying right which the applicant seeks to protect on final instance to this Court is, importantly, a procedural one: the rejection of that right will result in the continuance of a process only and will not result, without more, in a finding against him on the substance of the complaint. What is more, the applicant has had the benefit of an appeal. These considerations mitigate the threat of injustice. In addition, although the parties have consented to the conflicted Judges’ sitting in the present matter, regard must still be had to the fact that they would ordinarily have to recuse themselves. For this reason, this Court should deny leave to appeal to preserve the fairness of its own processes.
As I have thus argued consistently throughout this process, there is no right for anybody to have their case heard by the Constitutional Court. It is only when it is in the interest of justice to dos o, that the Constitutional Court hears a case (if it deals with a constitutional matter, of course).
This means that Judge President Hlophe’s attempt to stall the investigation into his alleged gross misconduct has finally come to an end. The JSC will now have to consider the matter again and will have to call both Hlophe and the accusing judges who will then be cross-examined to try and determine whether it was Hlophe or the judges of the Constitutional Court who lied.
But of course the JSC has in fact already admitted that it believes it was Hlophe who lied and not his accusers as subsequent to the complaints being made it appointed one of his accusers (justice Chris Jafta) to a permanent post on the Constitutional Court, something it would surely not have done if it had thought that he had lied about the alleged attempt by Hlophe JP to influence the Constitutional Court.
It will be interesting to see how the JSC deals with this hot potato. Who knows, it might even act correctly and restore some of its lost credibility. One lives in hope.