Quote of the week

Although judicial proceedings will generally be bound by the requirements of natural justice to a greater degree than will hearings before administrative tribunals, judicial decision-makers, by virtue of their positions, have nonetheless been granted considerable deference by appellate courts inquiring into the apprehension of bias. This is because judges ‘are assumed to be [people] of conscience and intellectual discipline, capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances’: The presumption of impartiality carries considerable weight, for as Blackstone opined at p. 361 in Commentaries on the Laws of England III . . . ‘[t]he law will not suppose possibility of bias in a judge, who is already sworn to administer impartial justice, and whose authority greatly depends upon that presumption and idea’. Thus, reviewing courts have been hesitant to make a finding of bias or to perceive a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of a judge, in the absence of convincing evidence to that effect.

L'Heureux-Dube and McLachlin JJ
Livesey v The New South Wales Bar Association [1983] HCA 17; (1983) 151 CLR 288
22 November 2006

Constitutional Court pro ANC?

Is the Constitutional Court pro-executive and thus pro ANC? Because almost all of the 11 judges appointed to the Court in 1994 were ANC members or sympathizers, even early on there was a perception amongst lawyers and the chattering classes that the CC was too deferential to the legislature and executive.

This perception intensified after the public relations disaster that was the floor-crossing case.

However, to say that the CC is pro-ANC is, in my opinion, just plane wrong.

Richard Calland, in his new book Anatomy of South Africa: Who Holds the Power?, gets it about right, I think, when he says:

“the court opted to take a prudent approach …., anxious not so much to be deferential as to be gradualist in forging a careful, long-term strategy for the defence of the Constitution.”

The CC has tried (not always successfully) to walk a tight-rope of pragmatic idealism. One the one hand it sees itself as champion of the poor, marginalized and downtrodden. On the other it is acutely aware that it needs to build up legitimacy, a kind of political currency deposited in the bank, so to speak.

They need that currency because they know they will have to spend it in future battles that will be of fundamental importance for the protection and preservation of the constitutional state itself. They fear newspaper headlines like “Constitutional Court soft on crime” or “Constitutional Court legalises prostitution/dagga”.

This anxiety is one way, I think, to explains Prince (endorsing the criminalisation of the use of dagga, and therefore of the Rastafarian religion), Jordan (declining to find sex or gender discrimination in the criminalisation of sex workers but not their clients) and, more controversially Volks v Robinson (endorsing legislation that excluded non-married heterosexual partners from claiming maintenance from their partners estates).

Another way is to argue that some of the judges are just plain conservative when it comes to social issues (homosexuality excluded). In a long line of cases the majority of the Court has failed to see or to understand the scope of the harm inflicted by discriminatory practices.

The normative framework from which some of the judges operate seems to make it impossible for them to see, for example, that if you criminalize the sex workers (almost always women) and not the clients (almost always men) you are demeaning all women – not only sex workers. You are saying that women must be punished if they do not conform to the sexists double-standard around sexual behaviour.

Even the sexual orientation cases can be explained in relatively conservative terms. The Court ordered same-sex marriage because they see marriage as one of the basic building blocks of an ordered and respectful society. By allowing same-sex couples to marry, one is allowing them to become normal, tamed, safe members of the community. What will happen to the rights of unmarried” same-sex couples now that marriage is open to them, is a troubling question.

Calland suggest there may be two main factions in the court: social conservatives and more radical progressive ones. But in 2009 the three most socially progressive judges – Sachs, O’Regan and Mokgoro – will retire and that will be the end of the socially progressive court.

What will remain is a court that will fight for the Rule of Law (as they see it) and for the rights of poor, mostly black, people.
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