Deputy Chief Justice retires: What next around the corner?

Thursday August 2 2012

By Karoli Ssemogerere

A growing club of retired intellectual capital is in town; the retired Justices and Judges of the Courts of Judicature. One more has retired, the Hon. Alice Mpagi Bahigeine as Deputy Chief Justice of Uganda. Uganda’s Judiciary has had its ups and downs in the last two decades.

We underpay judges but at the same time we cannot say they don’t live in relative comfort compared to the less befitting terms everyone else in the Judiciary contends with. By the standards of the region, Ugandans are relatively happy with their judges. No more than three judges have been forced to step down in the last 25 years. Justices Absolom Oteng for alleged professional misconduct, Moses Kalanda for fraud, Richard Oscar Okumu Wengi for professional misconduct and one more-- the Hon. Singh Choudry-- with pending proceedings before a tribunal.

The judges have greatly enhanced their reputation, especially in the arena of public law acting as a brake when the political and legislative processes have broken down. Of course very few had the rapid fire style of Justice Bahigeine. In 1994 while deciding a challenge to the Constituent Assembly Statute, she found it odd that officials of the Uganda Peoples Congress could “consult” silently with their members without referring to their party labels as the CA Statute proscribed any such conduct. She found for the State but not before stating the obvious that constraints on fundamental freedoms could only be justified if temporary.

Bahigeine, a few years later while dismissing a compound constitutional petition by a loser in the Kabale Municipality elections Serapio Rukundo, found she could not hear his claims because they were time-barred even if they touched on his constitutional rights. Politicians can be a strange time. In the said election in 1996 that saw Ruhakana Rugunda leave competitive politics, dogs had raced and probably cursed Kabale Municipality while dressed in Rugunda’s T-shirts set off by Rukundo supporters.

The long line of Justices is perhaps too long to repeat in this space. While most of today’s ‘I hate NRM cry-babies’ were writing more obstructive language in the Constitution to hamper partisan activities, the courts, with a lot of cajoling, forced the government to give it a second look denying the Movement the desperate legitimacy it sought.

When Bahigeine walks out of the court one last time; it will be a much different place from where she began in 1988 when she was first appointed to the bench. The Court of Appeal and the High Court early this year controversially moved to “Twed Plaza” premises close to Kampala’s centre of social life- Garden City. It is always comedy finding lawyers waiting like school children in the corridors for their cases to be called, deprived of the traditional court premises. It is also a nod to the bomb throwers that lawyers often have to shuffle through their bags to explain to police constables what they are carrying.

The quick, almost rapt, questioning style of the appellate courts also seems to be dying down as most of the rapid fire questioners have now retired. In Mpagi’s corner in the yester-year were rapid fire questioners like retired Justice Joseph B. Berko. Dr Kanyeihamba seems not to have had enough of these confrontations. It was amusing to see him one day at Eco-bank writing a I-hate-you-and-you-are-stupid note and placing it on the dashboard of a motorist who had the audacity to block his car in the parking lot.

It would be useful to find a role for retired members of the Bench. One useful way would be to help make the courts more efficient by allowing them to hear interlocutory applications while in senior status or deputising judges across the country seemingly overwhelmed by backlog. Judges in senior status would not have to work the full day. They could also breath some life in dormant tribunals, from planning and zoning boards, land regulation, the industrial court or arbitration.

For Bahigeine, I would really love to send her across town to City Hall to de-couple two warring lawyers- the Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Executive Director Jennifer Ssemakula Musisi. It seems they need some intervention from someone as stern with the full weight of the hyphenated name Mpagi-Bahigeine.

Mr Ssemogerere, an attorney and social entrepreneur, practices law in New York.
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