We have new magistrates, judges in town, but will they make it to heaven?

Author, Gawaya Tegulle. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Others ought to be tasked to explain how they managed to make judge.  

Once upon a time (isn’t that how all fairy tales are supposed to begin?) we had real magistrates and real judges in this country and becoming a member of “The Bench” as it’s called, was a mighty big thing.

Back then, it was a certificate of worth to join the bench; for it meant you had washed your hands and robes and were considered worthy to step up to the immense challenge, nay honour, of sitting in adjudication of disputes and making hallowed pronouncements as to right and wrong.

Back then, you were a god of sorts, for whereas the Lord is the Judge of all the earth, the next in line of authority, can only be the magistrates and judges. 

Back then we held them in high esteem, stood up when they entered a room and bowed with all respect to simply honour them and the office they represented. In fact, back then, judges were like saints; people who conducted themselves in such a manner that you were certain if they didn’t make it to heaven, nobody else would. There was a certain dignity and level of integrity that they carried about them.

All this is now in what Jeffrey Archer – best writer since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - likes to call “the dim, distant past” – so far back that you struggle to remember when such a time was.

A fortnight or so ago, the Judiciary released a list of new appointments – magistrates and judges. Some should be heartily congratulated; others really ought to be tasked to explain (with basic honesty) how on earth they managed to make judge.

Two categories. One, people who have committed heinous crimes against humanity and against the Lord in the Temple of Justice – and they have been appropriately punished by being promoted from chief magistrates or registrars to judges. We are talking about people who have deliberately perverted the course of justice and should have been fired. And jailed. 

The other category is those who were not in the lower courts, but have been brought to the higher bench with specific instructions to articulate and defend the interests of the NRM administration – interests that are morally perverse and basically adverse to the national interest and broader public good. Interests that are only achieved by breaking the law and suppressing human rights. The lawyers know these people. The Judiciary knows them. The said judicial officers know themselves.

The Constitution (Article 147) provides that the President shall appoint judges – acting on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission. At law “acting on the advice of” is not the layman’s “take it or leave it” scenario. It is mandatory.

In this case it simply means the President, strictly speaking, only performs a ceremonial role, to put icing on the cake prepared by the Commission. Anything else would be unconstitutional, for it’d interfere with the doctrine of separation of powers, which is fundamental to rule of law. The Commission has been reduced to a clearing house and rubber stamp, acting on the President’s instructions to appoint certain people to the bench.

This is how far Uganda has sunk. It is called ‘judicial capture’ and it is a key indicator of what we call ‘State collapse’ – when the supporting ethos, systems and structures that uphold a country have all failed, folded and fallen. 

Many of us lawyers go to court for the same reason we support Manchester United. We are aware that part of the team – the players that take to the pitch in the sacred red shirt, donning the esteemed and highly coveted Red Devils badge – are not worthy to do so. But we do not support a team – we support the club called Manchester United. Players come and go, but the club remains. We know its values and ethos; we know what “Man U” can be and what they can achieve when the right people don its shirt and take to the pitch. 

More on this next week, but for now let’s just say that judges with dignity, integrity and clean hands and robes…it is all a fairy tale now. In fact, when you leave the earth and you find some of these judges in a place labelled ‘heaven’, turn around – you are in the wrong place. Keep moving.

Mr Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda