Embattled judge snubs minister in return to work

Cape Judge President John Hlophe has gone back to work despite an injunction from the justice minister to stay away, the Cape Times reported on Tuesday.

The newspaper said Hlophe was back at his desk on Monday, and told a reporter he was “exercising my right to work”.

Hlophe, who asked for special leave in June last year while the battle over his alleged efforts to influence the Constitutional Court in favour of African National President Jacob Zuma dragged on, first returned to his office last Tuesday.

Hlophe is accused of attempting to influence the court’s decision over search-and-seizure raids carried out by the Scorpions on properties of Zuma and French arms manufacturing giant Thint.

Justice Minister Enver Surty objected to Hlophe’s return and asked him to make representations on why he thought he should go back to work.

Hlophe has since publicly accused the minister of trying to use the special leave as a device to “indefinitely sideline” him from executing his duties as a judge.

At 9.30 on Tuesday morning, Hlophe’s secretary said he was “not in chambers at the moment”.

Asked whether the judge was going to be at work during the day, she said: “He hasn’t arrived at work yet, so I don’t know.”

Surty’s spokesperson Zolile Nqayi told Sapa on Monday that the minister acknowledged that he had no power in law to stop Hlophe returning to work.

Surty could, however, ask the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to look into the matter.

The JSC is empowered by the Constitution to launch a probe into the conduct of a judge, a process which would allow the president to suspend him.

Surty has tried to facilitate settlement talks, amid fears that Hlophe’s clash with the country’s top judges could provoke a constitutional crisis.

His return is seen at the Justice Ministry and among judges critical of him as a repudiation of the talks and a declaration that he still aspires to a Constitutional Court job, and ultimately the post of chief justice under a Zuma presidency, despite ongoing JSC and Supreme Court of Appeal processes.

Hlophe’s supporters agree. “He is daring the justice minister to suspend him if he believes he has grounds,” said Hlophe confidant and legal adviser Paul Ngobeni.

Cape High Court insiders and Hlophe sympathisers said he had timed his return to coincide with the Constitutional Court’s return to work and to position himself for one of the seats to be vacated by four of the court’s judges.

Ngobeni said Hlophe had returned because he had been “out too long” and was tired of living off taxpayers’ money. The settlement talks had “stalled” and the stalemate was preventing him from “reaching his best potential in the profession”.

Most black lawyers and judges, Ngobeni said, saw Hlophe as leading an ideological battle against a “liberal” judiciary.

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