Judicial Conduct Committee Ruling on Justice Kriegler is Something to Lament and Reflect on, not Celebrate

On Friday, 29 July 2022, the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) found that former Justice of the Constitutional Court, Johann Kriegler, had breached the Code of Judicial Conduct (the Code) when he, on 1 March 2021, made a public statement in the media that Judge President John Hlophe of the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town was “unfit to be a judge”.

The specific provision of the Code in question is article 11(f). That provision requires judges, including retired judges, to “refrain from public criticism of another judge” and act with courtesy and collegiality (which the Code says are “indispensable attributes of a judge”) towards other judges.

It is not a breach of the provision if the judge who does the public criticism does so in circumstances where the criticism relates to judicial proceedings in which the judge being criticised is serving as a judge, or to “scholarly presentation made for the purpose of advancing the study of law” (eg, a lecture or symposium or workshop). Ngalwana’s complaint, however, was that Justice Kriegler’s criticism of Judge President Hlophe was none of these but “mean-spirited and seems to have been intended to sting”.

By the hand of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal (in his capacity as Chairman of the JCC), the JCC ordered Justice Kriegler

“within fourteen days (14) days of receipt of this ruling to retract [the] statement … in the form of an email to [Adv Vuyani Ngalwana SC].”

But why Ngalwana SC? This was, so the JCC reasoned, because Ngalwana – not Judge President Hlophe – is the Complainant.

On the face of it, this reasoning seemed odd to Ngalwana since the purpose of the complaint was to vindicate the integrity of the Judiciary. He said his purpose was

“to vindicate the integrity, dignity and independence of the Judiciary and the judicial system which are, in my respectful submission, compromised by the sustained wounding public ad hominem attacks of Justice Kriegler on Justice President Hlophe. The kind of sustained attack mounted by Justice Kriegler on Justice President Hlophe is not an attack only on Justice President Hlophe; it is an attack on the Judiciary and the judicial system of South Africa. Not only that, Justice Kriegler’s attack on Justice President Hlophe has given heart to some Judges of the Western Cape High Court, of which he is the leader, to defy his leadership, including refusing to sit with another judge. This kind of attitude has consequently heralded an open season on judges even by journalists, as demonstrated by the extraordinary attack by a journalist of a publication named Daily Maverick on two Justices of the SCA following the judgment in Jiba and Another v General Council of the Bar of SA and Another; Mrwebi v General Council of the Bar [2018] 3 All SA 622 (SCA) …

Asked by Ngalwana to clarify whether the order that Justice Kriegler send his retraction to him (Ngalwana) and not Judge President Hlophe had not been made in error, the JCC confirmed that

“the order is correct that Justice Kriegler should send the retraction to you, as the complainant before the Judicial Conduct Committee is Adv Ngalwana and not Judge President Hlophe”

And so it was, that Ngalwana – who expressly sought to vindicate the integrity of the Judiciary and not his own – became burdened with a retraction by a retired Constitutional Court Judge of a statement that was not targeted at him; and this by reason of the coincidence of his being the one who lodged the complaint. So, there the matter rests.

***

I have been asked by numerous members of the media to comment on the ruling of the JCC for “sound bite” purposes. In response I have offered to provide the full Complaint, Justice Kriegler’s Response, and my Reply to Justice Kriegler’s Response. I did so because “sound bites” have an uncanny way of taking the meat out of the bones of a case, and leave a skeleton that is all things to all readers. As I believe that the story of this complaint deserves far better treatment than being left to interpretation of “sound bites”, I decided to publish the entire Complaint, Response, Reply and Ruling at the same time on one platform – here.

The only “sound bite” I shall provide is this:

This Ruling of the JCC is not a moment I celebrate. I am truly sad that a ruling of this sort has had to be made about a judge I still respect for his contribution to South Africa’s constitutional jurisprudence. Indeed, one of my favoured quotes (out of many others) from Justice Kriegler’s judgments as a Constitutional Court judge comes from Key v Attorney-General, Cape Provincial Division, and Another (CCT 21/94) [1996] ZACC 25; 1996 (4) SA 187 (CC); 1996 (6) BCLR 788 (15 May 1996) where he wrote:

“In any democratic criminal justice system there is a tension between, on the one hand, the public interest in bringing criminals to book and, on the other, the equally great public interest in ensuring that justice is manifestly done to all, even those suspected of conduct which would put them beyond the pale.  To be sure, a prominent feature of that tension is the universal and unceasing endeavour by international human rights bodies, enlightened legislatures and courts to prevent or curtail excessive zeal by state agencies in the prevention, investigation or prosecution of crime.  But none of that means sympathy for crime and its perpetrators.  Nor does it mean a predilection for technical niceties and ingenious legal stratagems.  What the Constitution demands is that the accused be given a fair trial.  Ultimately, as was held in Ferreira v Levin, fairness is an issue which has to be decided upon the facts of each case, and the trial judge is the person best placed to take that decision.  At times fairness might require that evidence unconstitutionally obtained be excluded.  But there will also be times when fairness will require that evidence, albeit obtained unconstitutionally, nevertheless be admitted.”

In that case an accused asked the Constitutional Court to exclude from evidence in an upcoming trial certain evidence that he said was obtained by unlawful search and seizure operations. The Constitutional Court (per Justice Kriegler) said that is a decision for the trial court to make, not the Constitutional Court before the trial had been concluded.

Anyway, back to my reason for lodging this complaint.

It is my fervent hope, for the sake of the integrity of the South African legal profession, and the Judiciary in particular, that a similar complaint about a judge does not have to be lodged ever again.

Throughout my involvement in the tiff between Justices of the Constitutional Court and Judge President Hlophe between 2008 and 2011, I have always been driven by principle, not some over-zealous desire to defend a human being under any circumstances. In South Africa, there is a deep-seated culture of treating black professionals as somehow lesser creatures than their white counterparts and of deserving less reverence as professionals than their white counterparts. Part of what perpetuates this culture is our own contribution to it as black professionals. I would have none of it.

An observation by Life and Leadership coach, Dr Claudelle von Eck, at the July 2022 official launch of Strategic African Women in Leadership (SAWIL) stings to me as a black South African. She said,

“Systems tend to resist change, and if we’re not addressing the foundations of the inequalities and the root of the problem, then we’re just speaking to the symptoms and not the cause. And if we’re going to step into a new space but just become carbon copies of the system, to emulate the system, then we can’t expect it to change.”

It was as if Dr von Eck was speaking directly to me. Although the observation (made in July 2022) came long after I had lodged the complaint against Justice Kriegler in April 2021, I feel as if I was driven by a burning desire not to become a “carbon copy of the system” that encourages by condoning the unceasing abuse of black professionals through inertia or supine disinclination to speak out and do more in the face of what has become open season on black professionals in South Africa.

I accept that as Counsel, that should never be the motive for accepting a brief. In fact that is the worst possible reason for Counsel to accept a brief because then the line between your duty as Counsel and your personal feelings can easily become blurred. It is, in part, that realisation that informed my decision to pull out of the legal team that represented the Judge President at the beginning stages of his litigation against the Justices of the Constitutional Court.

Having said that, however, I am reminded of Justice Madlanga’s observation that

“As a judge’s make-up, outloook on life and indeed entire being follow her or him. Judges cannot be expected to entirely jettison all of their [subconscious] biases and perspectives about the world upon stepping into their judicial roles because meeting such a standard would be a super-human feat.”

I believe that this is true of us all. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we are all creatures of the societies or communities from which we spring. I am from a society that fights for what it believes to be right, whatever the circumstances. Therefore, even though I know that accepting a brief for principle is not a good idea (as principle tends to be the enemy of effective advocacy) I cannot rule out the possibility of doing so again. In the South African socio-political climate that is defined by race perspectives, some of the sound counsel of the advocates’ profession are just too difficult to internalise.

For a full perspective of the complaint against Justice Kriegler, here are the links to

Justice Johann Kriegler Complaint – Signed 20 April 2021

Justice Kriegler response – 17 June 2021

Reply to Justice Johann Kriegler Response – June 2021

Decision Adv Ngalwana SC against Justice Kriegler – 29 July 2022

By |2022-08-03T00:22:50+02:00August 2nd, 2022|Blog, General, News|Comments Off on Judicial Conduct Committee Ruling on Justice Kriegler is Something to Lament and Reflect on, not Celebrate

Transformative Social Change and the Role of the Judge in Post-Apartheid South Africa – A Lecture by Justice Dunstan Mlambo, Judge President of the Gauteng High Courts, South Africas

In his 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language, George Orwell succeeded in surgically peeling off the veneer of prosaic respectability from what passes for “modern” English to expose the ugly lies ignominiously hidden beneath.

Mourning the perversion of the English language – ostensibly in the name of modernism but, in truth, with a view to obfuscating and deceiving – he observed that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes.

Perhaps unfairly, Orwell’s essay sprang to mind when I read a take by the Daily Maverick on a lecture by Judge President Mlambo. I knew immediately that I had to get my hands on it and read it myself. A quote in the Daily Maverick piece left me puzzled and wishing to understand more.

So, I set out to find the lecture itself, and sat down to read it. Wow!

Daily Maverick quoted the Judge President as saying:

“There are no longer assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics; while they are not the same they are necessarily and inherently linked”

In fact, what the Judge President said – quoting former Chief Justice Langa – was this:

“[T]here is no longer place for assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics.  While they are not the same, they are inherently and necessarily linked”

Read the two quotes again, carefully, especially the first part of each.

A statement that “there are no longer assertions” about a particular worldview is a very different proposition from a statement that says “there is no longer a place for assertions” of that particular worldview. The former is a statement of fact, and whether or not the fact is well-founded is something that can be pursued with the speaker by fact checkers. The latter, however, is the expression of an opinion which is not measured for its plausibility merely by checking facts. One has to go beyond that and probe the reasoning. Facts answer to questions like “what”, “when”, “where” “who”, “how”. Opinions answer to “why”.

Whether or not there are still assertions that law can be kept isolated from politics is to me irrelevant. As a proposition of fact it does nothing to stimulate the necessary national debate and enquiry about whether or not politics plays a role in the determination of cases in the course of Judges applying, in their minds, the law. Of much interest to me, as a lawyer who appears regularly in South African courts, is the proposition that there is no longer a place for assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics, and that these are inherently and necessarily linked. Now, that piques my interest.

The Daily Maverick piece left me puzzled and wanting to understand more about the lecture because there is a clear dissonance (at least to me) between the first part of the quote and the second. If there are no longer assertions that law can be kept isolated from politics, then to what end must the reader be told in the same sentence that these two are inherently and necessarily linked, except to call readers to arms to demand that assertions that law can be kept isolated from politics remain a distant memory? In other words, why would the speaker tell me that law and politics are inherently and necessarily linked if he wants to discourage me from asserting that law can be kept isolated from politics? It is this disconnect in the Daily Maverick piece that piqued my interest.

Whether the disconnect is deliberate or a function of editorial negligence I do not know. I am just happy I picked up on it and read the lecture myself.

I have always maintained that Judges should emerge from behind their judicial shield and express their worldview on matters of public interest. The bench is not a monastery or convent where Judges have taken a religious vow not to engage in conversations about matters of national interest wherever they find themselves. They are citizens with socio-political interests and preferences before they become Judges. Those interests and preferences do not vanish upon people donning judicial robes or taking the oath to uphold the Constitution.

Judges are also fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands and taxpayers and are also affected by politics as the rest of us. So, to believe that Judges are immune to political influence or consideration – whether by design or by coincidence – when determining some cases, is in my view astonishing naivete.

That is why the lecture of the Judge President on Transformative Constitutionalism, and the role of Judges in it, comes as a welcome relief for me from the suffocating pretence by many members of the public that Judges are above politics. How can they be when they are political beings, appointed by a politician through a political process and in terms of a document that is a product of political detante: the Constitution?

By saying this I do not for a moment suggest that Judges should turn politicians or that they are politicians. Far from it. The point I make is that Judges are creatures of politics and cannot escape politics whether they wish to do so or not. It is not in their hands. It is in the nature of their work and in the subconscious mind of human beings with socio-economic and political experiences, interests and preferences.

As I understand the Judge President, he posits that Judges in post-apartheid South Africa must, of necessity, break from the self-imposed judicial strictures of unyielding notions of un-rehabilitated common law. He points to a number of cases (known to lawyers who practise in these courts) to demonstrate the reluctance of some Judges to unshackle their judicial grounding from common law that has been overtaken by the new constitutional grundnorm or ethos. The notion that the law exists in a gilded world of its own, unsullied by the politics of the day, is not only imagined by those who hold that view; it is also an impediment to Transformative Constitutionalism. That is what I understand the Judge President as saying.

To that end, the Judge President calls in aid cases like Beadica, a Constitutional Court judgment that reminds Judges that they

“must not lose sight of the transformative mandate of our Constitution.  Transformative adjudication requires courts to “search for substantive justice, which is to be inferred from the foundational values of the Constitution . . . that is the injunction of the Constitution – transformation.”

The idea that law and politics should not mix, and that Judges should steer clear of politics, is in my view uninformed. Again, by that thesis one is not saying Judges should turn politicians. But what Judges cannot avoid is make decisions steeped in politics. Whether that is by design or by coincidence only the Judge in question will know. For example, when two factions of a political party battle in court for the leadership of that party, and the court finds in favour of one faction, that decision aides a political project – whether the Judge intended it or not.

I think time has come for us all to disabuse ourselves of the notion that law and politics do not mix. They often do. To suggest otherwise is to deceive ourselves. As Chief Justice Langa himself said those many years ago, and now endorsed by the Judge President, law and politics are inherently and necessarily linked. It is naive to believe that the determination of cases, especially those engaging socio-economic  and political rights, is done shorn of political considerations. As the Judge President himself says:

“Judges should take note that every common law case is an opportunity to develop the common law and to construct social and economic relationships in one way or another consonant with the transformative agenda of the Constitution.  Every common law decision has implications that are political, moral, economic and distributive

In my view, if South Africa is to reverse (or at the very least ameliorate) the still lingering vestiges of apartheid, we need Judges who will not lose sight of the transformative mandate of the Constitution; Judges who will actively go in search of substantive justice informed by the foundational values of the Constitution: equality, human dignity, advancement of human rights and freedoms for those historically and currently marginalised or targeted for exclusion in all aspects of life in South Africa. That object cannot be fulfilled by a judiciary that is politically inert or, worse still, a judiciary that is still trapped in the politics that was dominant in 1985.

At some stage, the unpalatable but necessary task of an audit of Judges’ political persuasion will have to be embarked upon if Transformative Constitutionalism is to be realised. Until then, all we shall be doing is tinker at the edges with a system of oppression that continues to wreak havoc with the lives of the very category of persons the Constitution professes to protect and advance.

As Justice Madlanga of the Constitutional Court of South Africa has said:

“A judge’s make-up, outlook on life and indeed entire being follow her or him. Judges cannot be expected to entirely jettison all of their [subconscious] biases and perspectives about the world upon stepping into their judicial roles because meeting such a standard would be a super-human feat.”

If that is so, then what South Africa needs are not politically inert Judges but Judges whose politics aligns with the aspirations and healing of ordinary black people who still bear the scars of apartheid and continue to suffer the indignities of that system even under what is supposed to be a constitutional state founded on a constitutional ethos where everyone has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, but for whom that is merely a promise in a document.

It was President Nelson Mandela himself, addressing the then Law Society of the Transvaal in 1993, who said:

“But at the time of the worst excesses of apartheid, judges and lawyers on the whole remained silent. Judges, magistrates and prosecutors enforced apartheid laws without protest. Unwarranted sentences were called for and imposed for contravention of statutes passed to uphold apartheid.”

Will the same one day be said of contemporary South African Judges who remain silent in the face of the worst excesses of big business and the executive, putting up their judicial shield of “see no evil, speak no evil” as an excuse for not engaging publicly? Time will tell.

But the Judge President’s lecture is not just about politics and law. This just happens to be the theme that has piqued my curiosity and which, in my view, deserves closer scrutiny.

Read Full Lecture here: Transformative Social Change and the Role of the Judge in Post-Apartheid South Africa

You may also be interested in these:

SAJEI_Journal_-_Vol_1_-_Issue_1 Original article at page 48

Judging Judges_ Empathy as the Litmus Test for Impartiality

By |2022-04-03T09:49:04+02:00April 3rd, 2022|Analyses and Reviews|Comments Off on Transformative Social Change and the Role of the Judge in Post-Apartheid South Africa – A Lecture by Justice Dunstan Mlambo, Judge President of the Gauteng High Courts, South Africas
Go to Top