Thursday April 3 2014

Attacks on judges undermine public confidence in the Judiciary

By Nicholas Opiyo

When Ben Shalom Bernanke, the former two-term chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Central Bank of the United States spoke, the whole economic world held its breath. Each word he uttered would potentially change the world economy.

Stock markets around the world would immediately react to his briefing. Share prices either steeply drop or sharply rise on account of his projections. He held so much power over the markets. His words were carefully chosen. He acted with restraint and responsibility and won the admiration of many.

He did not seek cheap public coverage in the fierce and divisive Capitol Hill politics and only spoke when he had to and when he had serious policy messages to pass on to the general public.

Bernanke’s story provides a great lesson to those in public office to act with restraint and responsibility even under the most intense of pressure. Because decisions and actions of holders of public office have serious ramifications on the general public, they must act with care and avoid recklessness.

For many in public office in Uganda, this lesson has eluded them. No attempt is made to pause and reflect on the wider implication of their utterances. Loose off cuff disparaging comments are made with wanton abandon.

This (mis)behaviour reached its zenith in the judicial sector when the media reported that the country’s Attorney General, in response to two high court rulings that faulted his opinions, retorted: “I really don’t want to call these judges (Lydia Mugambe and Yasin Nyanzi) stupid because then I will be attacking the entire Judiciary but I might be forced to do so because this is a legal issue, which cannot be personalised.”(See Nyombi: I may Call Judges Stupid, The Observer March 30).

A country’s Attorney General is the head of the bar, senior counsel and the country’s number one legal advisor to government. The holder of the office is expected to be the epitome of legal excellence. His word and advice is instructive.

When the head of the bar, for whatever reasons, attacks the person of a judge, it not only brings into disrepute his own office but the entire judicial process. It is the height of professional discourtesy and disregard of judicial processes.

Judges are human and imperfect. They make mistakes and the judicial process provides for redress in such circumstances. These range from disciplinary actions to appeals of their decisions to the appellate court.
For the head of the bar to attack a judge other than appeal his/her decision is an act of judicial cowardice. More so because a judicial officer is unable to respond in the press for ethical restrictions.

Considering that the head of the bar by creature of statute plays a central role in the process of the process of appointing and disciplining judicial officers as a member of the Judicial Service Commission, such public attacks on a judge brings into question the role of the office on the Judicial Service Commission.

For the sake of arguments, lets assume the judges are actually stupid, when did the learned head of the bar come to find this out? Can we say he was not at his best wits when the appointments were being made?
Attacks on judges undermine judicial integrity but more importantly, manifests a lawyer’s deficiency in appreciating legal proceedings. It is ‘legal bad manners’. It is of course no excuse for judges to act in questionable manners.
More broadly, actions of lawyers and judges can undermine public confidence in judicial processes. That is why they must at all times act in manners that do not only engender public confidence in judicial processes but in ways that reflect good faith, professionalism and commitment to the rule of law.

Mr Opiyo is a lawyer and team leader of Chapter Four Uganda, a civil liberties organisation