Legal academic calls on judges to resign

Strong criticism has been Ievelled at three South African judges by a senior legal academic, who asks whether they should not resign so that judicial impartiality can be maintained.

Advocate Edwin Cameron, senior research officer at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, was speaking at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg this week. Cameron said the public had to be confident that the "judicial garb of impartiality and dispassion exists. "This requires that judges must not expose themselves as naked supporters of the present regime nor as collaborations in questionable intrigues."

Listing three examples which could give rise to public disquiet, he first criticised Mr Justice Marthinus Steyn, former Administer-General of Namibia, for remarks he made in a recent judgement.
In his remarks at the close of the Bloem case soon after the Emergency was proclaimed on June 12, 1986, Judge Steyn said, among other things, that the crisis was caused by resistance to governmental policies of change from people seeking faster change. Their resistance was directed not merely at the authorities of government and administration, but "also at certain sections of the private sector, at members of the security forces and other individuals and also indiscriminately at the general public".

According to Cameron, the "emotive language employed by (the judge) included reference to 'neck-lacing'; to 'mob violence' which, (the judge) claims, 'is usually instigated by agitators and accompanied by widespread intimidation'; to 'acts of organized terror'; to school and other educational boycotts; and to the 'mounting political, psychological, socioeconomic and terror onslaught upon the RSA from beyond its borders'.

Finally there is reference to the 'weakening of (the country's) unit of currency' caused in (the judge's) view by the unjustified and sinister 'onslaught'. Cameron claimed the remarks were "a politically partisan, emotive and one-sided exposition of the government's view of the causes of and necessity for the State of Emergency".

The pronouncements, says Cameron, are "a startling venture by a Supreme Court bench out of the realm of dispassion into the world of thoroughly partisan political rhetoric. The statement of political dogma preceding the judgement shows all the detachment of a defensive broadsheet put out to justify the apartheid regime and all the political sophistication of the sort of propaganda which is daily produced by the SABC.

Cameron then examines the questions surrounding Judge George Munnik's inquiry into the ANC advertisement. He asks, with PFP MP Brian Bamford SC, whether the judge was lending an air of respectability to what was simply a political exercise. Cameron says that even more serious are "momentous allegations" raised in parliament, which "go to the heart of (the judge's) integrity as a judicial officer'.

"The public of South Africa is surely entitled to hear from Mr Justice Munnik himself whether he is a close friend of the state president; whether he is a strong supporter of the National Party; whether his banking account was closed by Barclays because he defaulted in his debts; and whether, in his view, honesty required him to recuse himself from sitting on the commission. "The technicalities of the rules of parliamentary privilege have nothing to do with the public's right to know whether a senior judicial officer has made himself party to unworthy and discreditable conduct".

Finally, Cameron questions the decision of former Chief Justice Pierre Rabie to accept a post as acting chief justice. He examines several reasons which might be behind the government's decision to offer him the post and his decision to accept it, and comments that "if does not appear to be explainable, except on hypotheses which cast grave discredit on the judicial capacities of senior judges of appeal; or, yet worse, cast discredit on Mr Acting Justice Rabie for participating in an unjustifiable and possibly discreditable governmental manoeuvre.

"In the absence of convincing reasons, publicly advanced, for the creation (of the concept of an acting chief justice), it must be considered an innovation deeply damaging w the institution of law in this country." Cameron says of Judge Steyn that when a judge puts aside his "judicial garb of dispassion and enters the arena of pro government propaganda, his fitness for continued occupation of judicial office must become a legitimate subject of public debate". Of Judge Munnik and Acting Judge Rabie, he suggests that "the same sombre questions arise.

"Can they stay on in office without inflicting irreparable injury upon the high traditions the South African judiciary is frequently said to respect? "These troubled times urgently demand an utterly unblemished judiciary. Does the presence of Mr Justice MT Steyn, Mr Justice Munnik and Mr Acting Justice Rabie on the Supreme Court bench contribute to or obstruct the fulfilment of that demand?"

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