Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
5 September 2011

A tale of two judges

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The revealing interview of Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) this weekend and the subsequent decision of that body to rubber stamp the decision of the President, reminded me of the famous quote from The Tale of Two Cities reproduced above. We saw the best of judges and the worst of judges sparring with each other. As Xolela Mangcu wrote about this tale of two judges:

Moseneke stood as a symbol of authority and Mogoeng as a beneficiary of power. The question is which, then, will be the real leader of the Constitutional Court: authority or power? By nominating Mogoeng, President Jacob Zuma may well have taken our judiciary down a path where power trumps authority.

We also saw some ordinary citizens, perhaps expecting so little from themselves and from our system of government or deciding to go along with the decision of the President so that they would not alienate the government from which they need to receive work in future, cheering on mediocrity and power for power’s sake. We saw other citizens, animated by a belief in the core values embodied by the Constitution and the belief that as South Africans we deserve the best, who were shocked by what they saw, perhaps unrealistically yearning for authority to trump brute power in our political and legal discourse.

We saw some JSC members prepared to walk in the light of reason and to deal with the painful facts and we saw other members skulking in the darkness of unreason and emotions, displaying a remarkable lack of appreciation for the robust nature of openness and accountability in a system that is worth calling a democracy. And as is often the case when reason clashes with unreason, facts did not stand in the way of those who had no rational arguments to make.

Thus, some commentators and JSC Commissioners have questioned the bona fides of those who have asked critical questions about the suitability of the “nominee” to become Chief Justice, claiming that such people were animated by a hatred of the President and never support any decisions of the President or, worse, claiming that such people confronted the facts because they were racists. This is, of course, a lie. When justice Sandile Ngcobo was “nominated” as Chief Justice, many of us (who have asked questions about the suitability of justice Mogoeng’s appointment) enthusiastically supported the nomination of Ngcobo. Although we might have believed that Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke was a better person for the job, we did not say so, but sang the praises of the nominee because he was clearly a man of integrity, somebody with a towering intellect, somebody whose judgments have demonstrated that he is imbued with the values of the Constitution.

In the same manner we cheered on the appointment of Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke and of Chief Justice Pius Langa – even if we had our political differences with then President Thabo Mbeki who nominated these candidates (all of whom happened to be black).

I suspect that the interview over the weekend would have been interpreted completely differently by different people, depending on their political views, their knowledge of the law and legal processes, and their ability to get past shallow emotions to a place where facts and reason reside. For the first group, justice Mogoeng might well have emerged as something of a hero, somebody wrongly vilified by nasty people with an axe to grind. After all, the nominee did not come across as the ogre depicted by Zapiro, nor as a bumbling fool, and he passionately, aggressively and sometimes bitterly defended himself against the sharp criticism levelled against his judgements and his judicial philosophy and displayed a moral flexibility much admired in politicians.

I happen to find myself in the second group who was deeply troubled by what emerged at the JSC, based not on emotions but on the facts and an analysis of the issues at hand. In this sense the interview was more revealing than expected.

Justice Mogoeng justified some of his rape judgments and the seemingly patriarchal reasoning employed by him in those judgments by claiming that he was merely following the precedent set by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) to which he was bound as a judge, what I would call “the SCA made me do it” defence. He thus justified his views that women abusers who are “provoked” by the victim deserve leniency, that rapists who know the victim should also be given some leeway, and that child rapists can legitimately be described as having been “tender” to the child he raped because the injuries sustained by the child were not as horrific as in other rape cases, by claiming that this approach is in line with the law. The problem is that these views are not in line with the law as it has developed after the end of apartheid.

These justifications were revealing because they suggested a lack of knowledge of the law and a lack of knowledge and/or lack of respect for the legislature who has spoken quite forcefully on this issue. Thus, in defence of his judgment in S v Moipolai (handed down in 2004, ten years after the advent of democracy) in which Mogoeng stated that it was “highly insensitive of the Appellant firstly, to punch an 8 months pregnant woman, secondly, to punch her so hard that he caused her to fall, and thirdly to punch her because her sense of decency and privacy did not allow her to share the same bed with the father of her children and another woman”, justice Mogoeng relied on a judgment of the SCA in S v N, handed down at the height of apartheid in 1988. In that judgment the Appellate Division (as it was then called), displayed the kind of patriarchal values that was rife amongst apartheid era judges by stating that it was permissible to take into account  as a mitigating factor in sentencing in a rape case that there was an intimate relationship between the rapist and the survivor.

Of course, since 1988 the legal landscape in South Africa was supposed to have changed dramatically. This is what some of us mean when we talk about the “transformative” nature of our legal and constitutional system. We adopted a new Constitution in which the rights of women are now protected. Parliament passed sections 51 and 53 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 105 in 1997, providing for minimum sentences to be imposed on rapists unless compelling circumstances existed to deviate from this. This was done exactly to prevent judges with patriarchal views from imposing inappropriately lenient sentences on rapist based on criteria that says more about the sexist assumptions of the judge, than on the way in which the survivor might have experienced the rape.

In 2001 the SCA made it clear that knowing the rape survivor would NOT constitute such a compelling circumstance that would allow for a reduction in the minimum sentence. (One could add that ordinarily it should be an aggravating circumstance that the rapist knew the survivor — at least for anyone imbued with the values enshrined in the Constitution – because the effect of being violated in this way by somebody one knew would be devastating for the rape survivor.)

Mogoeng’s justification for his rape judgments is therefore surprising as it suggested that our Chief Justice designate was at the time when these judgments were handed down wholly ignorant of the new legislative environment and the constitutional values embodied by the legislation. It also suggested that the nominee might have been unaware that the SCA had developed our law in this regard to bring it in line with the Constitution and the relevant legislation. Whether ignorance of legal precedent and legislation should be a disqualification for appointment as Chief Justice, I will leave for every reader to decide for him or herself.

Mogoeng’s defence of his “dissent” in the Dey case was perhaps more bizarre and therefore more damaging to his image. Apart from the fact that his defence was less than plausible, it also contained in it a serious admission. Justice Mogoeng claimed that he was given little time to decide on whether he agrees with the other judges of the Constitutional Court that it would never per se constitute defamation to call somebody gay. He did not give reasons for “dissenting” from this view, Mogoeng claimed, because he had not really had time to apply his mind to the issue at hand.

This argument — if indeed true — appears more like an admission of a dereliction of duty on the part of the nominee than as an exculpation for not providing reasons. Surely when a judge sits on the Constitutional Court and indicates that he or she disagrees with the opinion of colleagues and if he or she is then asked to provide reasons for the disagreement but refuses to provide such reasons, one would assume that the judge did apply his mind to the matter but decided for strategic or other reasons not to provide reasons for the disagreement. Can one ever indicate disagreement with others without having applied one’s mind to an issue? To me it sounds a bit like claiming to be half pregnant — not something widely accepted as possible amongst doctors or people with any knowledge of the human body. How could one possibly indicate a disagreement without having thought about why one is disagreeing? To me, at least, this explanation makes no sense and does not ring true.

When one is a judge and is required to decide where one stands on all the important issues before the court, one is required to apply one’s mind to all the issues at hand and if one disagrees with the majority judgement on any issue one is required to provide reasons for this disagreement. A failure to apply one’s mind to the issues at hand would suggest that one has failed to live up to one’s judicial oath of office and, in effect, that one has refused to do one’s job properly.

I imagine that for many non-lawyers justice Mogoeng’s defence might ring true. After all, we have all been in situations where we have been pressed for time and have not given an issue as much thought as one would have liked to. As a member of a tea club one might well have failed to form an opinion on whether the dues of members should be increased or not. But the difference is of course that most of us are not judges and are not required by the Constitution to uphold the law, to apply our minds to the issues raised by a case before us and to provide reasons for our decision.

And what happens now? I have heard talk of civil society groups challenging the constitutionality of the process followed by the JSC on the grounds that the JSC had failed to engage in proper consultation with the President on this issue as required. It is argued that this is so because the JSC had decided that it was impermissible for it to consider whether other candidates may have been more suited for the position. How can there be a meaningful exchange of ideas if the one party exchanging ideas sees its role in such narrow terms, some have asked? This is a plausible, perhaps even strong, legal argument.

However, I am not sure it would be in the interest of the judiciary or the Constitutional Court for this matter to be litigated as it might further damage the credibility of our judiciary. Long drawn out litigation may well turn into a highly politicised and partisan matter, pitting staunch defenders of the President and the candidate against those who believe the JSC must act as a check on the exercise of power by the President when he appoints a Chief Justice.

While it would be good to get some clarity about the meaning of the constitutional provision requiring that the President must consult the JSC BEFORE appointing a Chief Justice, a legal challenge will probably ultimately not change anything as it will be based on procedure and not substance and will not necessarily lead to a different outcome — given the fact that the President does have the constitutional power to appoint a Chief Justice. Would it be possible to approach a court to give clarity on this legal point without asking for the decision of the JSC or the President to be set aside? I am not a procedural lawyer, so I am not sure how to answer this question.

In any event, President Zuma will now appoint Mogoeng Mogoeng as the new Chief Justice, despite the fact that the nominee has been tainted — to some degree, at least — by the process of his appointment. (Depending one one’s view, the nominee would have been tainted either by the “vicious attacks” against and “onslaught” on him by dark forces, or tainted by the close scrutiny of his judicial views and temperament.)

My fervent hope is that the new Chief Justice will be able to demonstrate through his words and deeds over the next ten years that those of us who asked critical questions about his appointment and about his values and commitment to the Constitution have been mistaken. Maybe the gruelling process may have allowed the nominee to reflect more seriously on his commitment to gender equality and the dignity of gay men and lesbians and might have brought a change of heart. Maybe he might have realised that he ought not to rely on his personal religious views — as far as they clash directly with the values enshrined in the Constitution – when he considers cases coming before his court. I, for one, will keep an open mind.

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