Thursday April 20 2017

Pending judicial vacancies is a wake up call for Judiciary

Karoli Ssemogerere

Karoli Ssemogerere 

By Karoli Ssemogerere

It is now official; Steven B Kavuma will retire as a Chief Justice in September 2017 about four months from now. His replacement should be in office by December 2017 taking into account the three months given to retiring judicial officers to wind up business and write judgments.
All three superior courts have a number of current and pending vacancies in the near term. The Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and the High Court will see their ranks depleted by retirements; resignations in some instances, for example, Justice Solome Balungi Bossa is running for a judgeship on the International Criminal Court and Justice Byabakama Mugenyi may be gone for as long as 14 years as chairperson of the Electoral Commission.
An even bigger wave will hit the courts in 2018-2020 when the next big wave of judicial retirements will pass ending with the retirement of Chief Justice Bart Katureebe.

So, the next court to possibly hear petitions against the 2021 presidential election and determine important constitutional petitions will be substantially different.
Of all three arms of government the Judiciary seems to be struggling to find its place. The executive branch pays lip service to it. The legislature is also now content to dismiss it at will. The Speaker of Parliament is remembered last year for dismissing a court order issued by Justice Kavuma as a “stupid order”. Parliament sees the Judiciary as always on the side of the executive when a dispute arises between the Judiciary and the Executive.

Second even though it is denied the discreet hand of the Judiciary in attempting to increase the retirement age of Judges last year left them discontented. The fact that they had to lean on Robert Sekitoleko, Nakifuma MP whose education credentials were being challenged in court made it worse.
This selfish attitude derailed critical reforms that are contained in the Administration of Justice Bill and other reforms to restructure the Judiciary. Even after being deterred, some judges were relentless in staying on. This brought back bitter memories of the less than gracious manner in which the members of the Odoki court struggled with assuming emeritus status. Some of them even refused to vacate their chambers later returning as acting (junior) justices.

Last week, the IGG after the Uganda Law Society annual conference wrote to the Chief Justice in a highly copied letter asking him to take charge on corruption in the Judiciary.
The Chief Justice had been quoted saying that he had little or no powers to discipline a judge powers which lie in the Judicial Service Commission.
Of course people listening to the case of a High Court Judge taking a bribe of Shs100m or Shs1b depending on whom you listen to were all wondering whether Police or other law enforcement organs simply went to sleep or do not exist anymore. The exchange was notable because the key players in the communication are aware of these grave allegations and are in unamity that nothing has been done. But the current situation where this and other allegations continue to grow have affected the image of the courts.
The courts must reflect the values of society. Recent rulings in the lower courts show that this becoming something of the past.

The public was left musing in the week before Easter when the Minister of Labour was arraigned and immediately given bail after his aide recanted a confession he gave on allegations of receiving a bribe and blackmailing people associated with Aya Hotel. A similar court found it wise to send a single mother of three children Stella Nyanzi to Luzira for two weeks; who had voluntarily appeared and made statements to police in Kibuli.
This is a scenario that ordinarily would have attracted voices of reason inside the Judiciary causing the file to be called voluntarily for compassionate bail. In this environment, the courts find themselves less worthy of public sympathy, and more as part of the problem.
Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.