Editorial: Clean case for judges
When different arms of state clash, the judiciary is often the first casualty and a victim of the executive. For this reason, our Constitution and laws created a shield against any attempts to interfere with judges’ security of tenure or remuneration: their personal independence guarantees the functional and institutional independence of the judiciary.
It is worrying when judges breach their own code of conduct and the Judicial Service Commission Act, violating regulations designed to safeguard their independence and minimise conflicts of interest. We report this week that some judges have failed or refused to declare their business and other interests – thankfully, a small number of them. But a failure to enforce declaration by even these few judges could undermine the perception, until now well founded, that judges are honest mediators of power.
Delinquent judges can only serve to invite unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion by the other arms of state into the affairs of the judiciary. Perilously, judges who hide their business interests are susceptible to some form of blackmail by anyone who wants to subvert the judicial process.
We agree with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s action in referring the offenders to the judicial conduct committee, a disciplinary body, for harsher sanctions. If judges are to be, and to be seen to be, trusted arbiters of disputes, they cannot have undeclared interests that raise questions about their impartiality.
Have we forgotten how the Western Cape division was almost thrown into disarray after its judge president, John Hlophe, failed to declare a payment for services he rendered to a company to which he later granted leave to appeal to sue a fellow judge?
The declaration of interests should also serve as an ethical symbol of the moral standing of our judges, without which the public will lose faith in the system.
We have reported on how the business interests of some members of the executive and legislature are the root cause of corruption and are, hence, a hindrance to development. With other public institutions such as the police, the prosecuting authority and intelligence being weakened by politicians, our democracy cannot afford the judiciary’s independence to be compromised.