[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
It is now generally accepted by constitutional lawyers and politicians – publicly by some, privately by others – that section 8(a) of the Judges’ Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act and the President’s decision (taken in terms of this section) to extend the term of office of Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, is invalid. Yesterday the Constitutional Court heard arguments about this issue and we will have to wait and see whether the judges on that Court agrees with this emerging conventional wisdom.
But at the hearing yesterday the issue of whether proposed amendments to the Act would pass constitutional muster was also raised. It is unclear whether the Constitutional Court will address these questions, given the fact that the draft legislation at issue has not yet been debated or passed by Parliament.
The Minister of Justice has tabled an amendment to section 8 of the relevant Act, which – in essence – would provide for a Chief Justice or President of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) to serve a term of seven years as Chief Justice or as President of the SCA in situations where they would have served a shorter term had the ordinary rules regarding tenure of judges applied to them. The amendment provides for an exception in cases where a person reaches the age of 75 before the seven year term ends, in which case that person will have to retire at the age of 75.
The Act also empowers the the President at any time to remove from office a Chief Justice or a President of the SCA who continues to perform active service in terms of this section “if he or she becomes afflicted with a permanent infirmity of mind or body which renders him or her incapable of performing his or her official duties”.
It is clear that the second part of this proposed amendment, which deals with the removal from office of the Chief Justice or the President of the SCA by the President, would never pass constitutional muster. The removal of any judge from office is regulated by section 177 of the Constitution. This section entrusts the power to make decisions on the removal of a judge on the basis of incapacity to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), who is required to make a recommendation in this regard to the National Assembly. In turn, the National Assembly can only confirm the removal from office of a judge by the President of the country if two thirds of its members voted for removal.
This proposed amendment purports – in a clearly unconstitutional manner – to delegate to the President of the country the power to remove a Chief Justice and the President of the SCA from office if specific circumstances arise. When the Chief Justice serves a 7 year term that extends beyond the 12 year term prescribed by the Constitution for all Constitutional Court judges, the President will, in principle, have a free hand to decide on whether a Chief Justice has become permanently infirm.
But an Act of Parliament cannot delegate a power given by the Constitution to the JSC and the National Assembly to the President of the country. This would be like an ordinary piece of legislation delegating the power to appoint the Police Chief to the Chief Justice when the Constitution clearly states this power must be exercised by the President of the country.
Whoever drafted this section really should be fired for incompetence because the section is so obviously unconstitutional that every second year student of Constitutional Law would have been able to advise the drafters that this section will never pass constitutional muster. One trusts that when Parliament debates the proposed amendments, this section will be scrapped forthwith. Section 177 of the Constitution already provides for the removal of a judge from office if that judge suffers from incapacity due to old age, so the section is unnecessary in any case.
A more difficult question posed by the draft legislation is whether the amendment is constitutionally invalid because it singles out the Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal for an extension of their terms. Section 176(1) of the Constitution provides that: “A Constitutional Court judge holds office for a non-renewable term of 12 years, or until he or she attains the age of 70, whichever occurs first, except when an Act of Parliament extends the term of office of a Constitutional Court judge.”
The argument could be made that a law of Parliament that singles out the Chief Justice in this way and does not extend the term of office of the Deputy Chief Justice and other Constitutional Court judges is not a law of general application and that Parliament is not empowered to single out the Chief Justice in this manner. Because judicial independence, safeguarded in section 165 of the Constitution, requires security of tenure for judges and also requires judges not to be treated by the legislature in a manner that would allow a reasonable apprehension of bias to arise against a judge serving in a particular position, similarly situated judges should usually be treated similarly by the legislature unless pressing practical reasons exist not to do so.
Given these requirements and because section 176(1) talks about the term of office of “a Constitutional Court judge”, so the argument goes, the legislation must either extend the term of office of all Constututional Court judges or none of them. Singling out the Chief Justice for an extension of his or her term above other Constitutional Court judges might serve as a powerful incentive for any Constitutional Court judge to be subservient to the executive in order to serve for a longer term on the Constitutional Court. This might give rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of any serving Chief Justice.
Besides, it might be argued, it is arbitrary to make a distinction between the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice by only extending the term of office of the former, as both positions are explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. The fact that only the term of the Chief Justice is extended, would turn a law of general application into an impermissible law that arbitrarily draws distinctions between different judges not mandated by the Constitution. There is no pressing practical reason to do so, hence the distinction cannot be constitutionally permitted.
On the other hand, one may argue that the Constitution itself distinguishes between the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice on the one hand, and other judges of the Constitutional Court, on the other and bestows the power to appoint the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice on the President. An Act that extends only the term of office of the Chief Justice and not the terms of office of other Constitutional Court judges, so the argument might go, would only follow the scheme already established by the Constitution.
As the President already appoints the Chief Justice – usually from amongst serving judges of the Constitutional Court – and as this position could be viewed – reasonably so or not – as being sought after, would one then not be able to say that an apprehension of bias may arise (reasonably so or not) regarding all Constitutional Court judges, but that this dynamic has been built into the Constitution and should therefore be dismissed as being constitutionally irrelevant – even if such an apprehension might be viewed as reasonable, which would in any case be questionable?
The argument would be that all judges of the Constitutional Court may well be perceived by some (if not by reasonable bystanders) to be potentially less likely to find against the executive and may be perceived as being potentially subservient to the executive because it would be believed that an ambitious judge would rule in a certain way in the hope that he or she would be appointed as the next Chief Justice. If this were to be true, then the Constitution itself mandates this dynamic and any amendments to the Judges Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act would make no difference to the state of affairs.
Besides, so it might be argued, section 176(1) bestows on Parliament the power to extend the office of “a Constitutional Court judge”, which could be interpreted to mean any of the judges of the Constitutional Court – including the Chief Justice.
I think both arguments are plausible and may well hold sway with the Constitutional Court. However, personally, I would think that section 176(1) should be given a narrow interpretation as it should be read holistically with all other sections of the Constitution – including those sections which guarantee the independence of the judiciary and secure the tenure and financial future of judges. Legislation that tampers with this scheme – even slightly – should therefore be carefully scrutinised. It should be assumed that the Constitution did not empower the legislature to make distinctions between judges serving on the Constitutional Court unless pressing practical reasons exist for drawing such a distinction.
Given this view, I am leaning towards the argument that the proposed amendments as currently drafted do not meet the requirements for independence, read with section 176(1) of the Constitution. As I have argued before, it would be preferable if Parliament merely amended section 4 of the Judges Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act to extend the term of office of all Constitutional Court judges to 15 years of service on the Constitutional Court.
Given the fact that the incumbent Chief Justice had unwisely accepted the President’s offer of an extension of his term of office in terms of section 8(a) – which he should have known was almost certainly unconstitutional – it is important for the legislature to ensure that the dignity of the Constitutional Court and the office of the Chief Justice be protected. This can best be done by treating all judges serving on the Constitutional Court in the same manner to prevent any perception arising – no matter how invalid this might be – that special arrangements are being made to ensure that the incumbent Chief Justice remains in office because he is more trusted by the executive or is beholden to it.BACK TO TOP