It came as no surprise that Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe intends appealing against two SCA judgments that prompted the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to agree to reopen a complaint into his conduct. According to news reports, Hlophe’s lawyer Barnabas Xulu said Hlophe’s legal team was preparing to file papers at the Constitutional Court. It is, of course, Judge President Hlophe’s right to try and avoid a situation where the JSC is forced to decide whether it was him or the judges of the Constitutional Court who lied to it under oath and he has every right to lodge an appeal. He just does not have any right to have that appeal heard by the judges of the Constitutional Court.
In any case, this creates a fascinating constitutional problem which us lawyers will discuss for years to come. However, the problem is not one that is too difficult to solve and the awkward situation created by the appeal can be easily addressed.
The problem is this. Only four of the current judges of the Constitutional Court are not complainants in the case. The seven judges who took part in the original complaint would have to recuse themselves as they cannot hear a case in which they are personally involved. Where there is a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of a judge who has to hear a case, he or she has a duty to recuse him or herself. That would clearly be the case here. However, section 167(2) of the Constitution states that a minimum of 8 of the 11 judges of the Constitutional Court must hear a case. The four remaining judges therefore would not constitute a quorum and those four judges could not hear the case alone.
One solution would be to appoint four acting judges to make up a quorate bench of eight judges. However, appointing four acting judges is not feasible. Section 175(1) of the Constitution states that:
The President may 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. The appointment must be made on the recommendation of the Cabinet member responsible for the administration of justice acting with the concurrence of the Chief Justice.
Where a judge recuses him or herself from a case but remains at work there is clearly no vacancy in the court. Neither is the judge absent when he or she is sitting in the office but has merely recused him or herself from hearing a particular case. This interpretation is in line with the ordinary meaning of the words as well as with the case law dealing with the meaning of the word “absent”. In the case of Natal Rugby Union v Gould the Supreme Court of Appeal decided that ordinarily the word “absence” in a constitution of a voluntary association means the state of being absent, that is to say, physically absent and not “legally disqualified”.
As judges are legally disqualified when they recuse themselves, they are therefore not absent as required by section 175(1) of the Constitution and no acting judges can therefore be appointed to the Constitutional Court in these circumstances.
But even if one could re-interpret the term to mean that a judge is “absent” when he or she recuses him or herself, no acting judges can be appointed for yet another rather important reason. Such acting appointments are made by the President on advice of the Chief Justice and the Minister of Justice. But the Chief Justice and the Minister of Justice are both parties to this dispute while the President might reasonably be perceived as having an interest in the dispute as the approach by Judge President Hlophe allegedly took place on behalf of President Zuma. No acting judges appointed in this manner by those empowerd by the Constitution to do so could possibly be perceived by any reasonable person to be unbiased.
But this is not the end of the world. Everyone has a right to lodge an appeal against a decision of a lower court with the Constitutional Court. But no one has a right to have their appeal heard by the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court often declines to hear appeals lodged with it, inter alia, because it is not in the interest of justice to do so. The Constitutional Court will therefore have no option but to decide that it is not in the interest of justice to hear the appeal and that the SCA judgment should therefore stand.
Of course, one may argue that because the majority of judges of the Constitutional Court are involved in the Hlophe matter, they should not be involved in a decision about whether the SCA judgment should stand. Judge President Hlophe’s lawyers may very well apply for the judges to recuse themselves even before a decision is taken on whether it is in the interest of justice to hear the appeal. This is where the doctrine of necessity enters the picture. This doctrine allows, inter alia, for a judge to hear a case even if he or she has an interest in it in a case where it is impossible for any other judge or tribunal to hear the case.
The Constitutional Court will therefore be required to deal with the general constitutional point (but not the substantive arguments of Judge President Hlophe) raised by this appeal and will probably have to decide that it can never be acceptable for a party with a direct interest in a case to take part in the appointment of acting judges, that acting judges can therefore not be appointed in this case and that it is therefore impossible for the Constitutional Court to hear the case. The SCA judgment will therefore have to stand.
There would be nothing extraordinary about such a decision. Neither would it fundamentally affect the rights of anyone. In 2008 in the case of American Isuzu Motors, Inc et al, Petitioners v Lungisile Ntsebeza et al the United States Supreme Court could not hear a case because a majority of judges on that court had an interest in the case. The Supreme Court judges (including those who had an interest in the case) therefore decided not to hear the case and to affirm the decision of the lower court from which the appeal was lodged. The same solution could be used in this case.
Given the fact that no one has a right to have their appeal heard by the Constitutional Court (who only hears cases when it is in the interest of justice to do so), and given that it could not possibly be in the interest of justice for the bench of current judges to hear the case, nor for a bench constituted by parties with a direct interest in the case to hear a case, the only elegant solution seems to me to be the one proposed above.
Those who do not have the best interest of the judiciary, the legal system and our constitutional democracy at heart might be tempted to try and exploit this awkward situation to discredit the Constitutional Court or the legal system as a whole for short term gain. They may argue (wrongly) that by not hearing the case the Constitutional Court is infringing on the rights of the appellant.
Demagogues might also exploit the ignorance of the public who might not be aware that one does not have a right to have one’s case heard by the Constitutional court. However, I am confident that all reasonable people – no matter where they stand in the matter of the complaint against Judge President Hlophe - will not allow such demagoguery to go unchallenged.
Although the situation is of some academic interest and presents the Constitutional Court with an awkward problem, talk of a crisis is somewhat overblown. If everyone acts in an honorouble manner, several solutions (including the one proposed above) could be found to ensure that no crisis will arise and that our judiciary will emerge stronger and more credible on the other side.