An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.
Business Day reported yesterday that additional candidates were approached on Friday to stand for appointment as judges of the Constitutional Court to replace Constitutional Court Judge Tholakele Madala at the end of the year because the original list of five applicants was “weak”.
It is understood that the original long list consisted of magistrate Samuel Mashimbye, Judge Nigel Willis of the Johannesburg High Court, former Wits professor Mervyn Dendy, Judge Shenaz Meer of the Land Claims Court and Pretoria High Court Judge Eberhardt Bertelsmann. On Friday, three judges from the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) — Edwin Cameron, Frans Kgomo and Chris Jafta — were approached to augment the list.
An anonymous Business Day source said that it was “really worrying” that the pool of choices for the Constitutional Court was so small and weak, not drawing enough candidates from the “outstanding options available”. He said the seeming reluctance of potential appointees might be attributable to the “serious pressure” the Constitutional Court is under at the moment. According to Business Day:
He was referring to the complaint laid by the judges of the Constitutional Court against Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe, that Hlophe had tried to influence the outcome of the Jacob Zuma/Thint cases, and the political fall out, which led to unprecedented criticism of the court by political organisations.
Another factor he suggested was that white potential candidates perhaps felt they had a better chance of being appointed under ANC president Jacob Zuma than President Thabo Mbeki, because “some people think Zuma will give them a fairer chance ”.
I have no direct knowledge of what motivated many credible candidates not to make themselves available for this position, but I would be surprised if the anonymous source is correct in his or her assessment. There seems to me a far more obvious reason why so few heavy hitters made themselves available.
According to the Constitution apart from the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice, ordinary judges of the Constitutional Court are appointed by the President, after consulting the Chief Justice and the leaders of parties represented in the National Assembly. But the President must choose from “a list of nominees with three names more than the number of appointments to be made” submit to the President by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC).
This means the JSC will send four names to President Mbeki who will have to choose one of the four nominees to serve for the next fifteen years on the Court. But if a new Chief Justice is selected next year from among the members of the Constitutional Court, there will be four vacancies in the Court. The JSC will then send a list of seven names to the President who will have to choose four.
I am not a betting man but it seems to me this year one will have a one in four chance of being selected by the President if one is nominated by the JSC. Next year one will have more than a 50% chance of being selected. If I had an eye on a Constitutional Court post, I would wait until next year and rather take my chances with the JSC.
I would be surprised if this consideration did not play a role in decision of many candidates to make themselves available this time around. I would be really surprised – and also deeply disappointed – if the top tier candidates would be so lily-livered that they would not make themselves available because of the “serious pressure” the Constitutional Court is under at the moment.
If one is so faint hearted that one would decide not to apply for the dream job just because of the pressure on the Court, one really would not deserve to serve on this Court at all. It is in the very nature of constitutional democracy that there would be political pressure on the highest court of the land. Good judges would not be swayed by such pressure but would interpret and enforce the Constitution according to precedent and their conscience – which was exactly what Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke said at his birthday party before he was attacked by uninformed and reactionary members of the ANC NEC.
Such attacks are part of the job. Its a small price to pay to have so much power and to do such an intellectually stimulating and interesting job. Let’s hope next time more candidates with good credentials and the necessary backbone make themselves available. The health of our constitutional democracy depends on it.BACK TO TOP