‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to nuclear case’

Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe has been accused by his deputy, Patricia Goliath, of trying to allocate a case to judges perceived to be sympathetic to former president Jacob Zuma.

The 2017 Earthlife Africa judgment set aside nuclear agreements that South Africa had concluded, including one with Russia. In a complaint of gross misconduct to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), Goliath said Hlophe had told her, “the criticism against former president Zuma with regard to the nuclear deal was unwarranted.”

“He attempted to influence me to allocate the matter to two judges he perceived to be favourably disposed to the former president,” Goliath said. When she objected, Hlophe — “although unhappy” — relented and two other judges were appointed, said the deputy judge president.

Goliath is the second most senior judge in the Western Cape. Her complaint to the JSC, the constitutional body that deals with judicial misconduct, will first be considered by its judicial conduct committee. If there is potentially impeachable conduct, the JSC may refer it to be investigated by a Judicial Conduct Tribunal. 

Hlophe has, however, dismissed the complaint as “gossip, rumour-mongering and information allegedly obtained from the grapevine” that brought the division into disrepute.

“It’s gossip and she must provide evidence. We need particularity,” Hlophe’s attorney, Barnabas Xulu, told the Mail & Guardian.

The Western Cape judge president is still facing a judicial conduct tribunal for allegations that he tried to influence the outcome of judgments at the Constitutional Court in favour of the former president. The complaint — now more 10 years old and yet to be finalised — was made by all the then justices of the Constitutional Court. Hlophe has consistently denied the allegation. 

The allegation by Goliath is one of a number of shocking and serious allegations against Hlophe and his wife Gayaat Salie-Hlophe, also a judge in the division. Another allegation is that he physically assaulted another judge, who is not named. Goliath said she did not have personal knowledge of this incident, but it was “common knowledge amongst the judges and, I believe, spoken about in the legal profession.”

“Hlophe went to the judge’s chambers and physically assaulted him,” said Goliath.  

Goliath’s complaint is against both Hlophe and Salie-Hlophe and she accused both of gross misconduct — which, if the JSC agrees, would be impeachable.

Goliath said that all her deputy judge president duties had been taken away from her by Hlophe, and that he had appointed Salie-Hlophe to a high-profile matter that, in her view, should have gone to a more experienced, senior judge. 

Salie-Hlophe also got to decide whom she sat with on the bench said Goliath. Salie-Hlophe wielded “enormous power” in the division and was even involved in the appointment of acting judges. “I say this reluctantly, some judges are afraid of her,” said Goliath.

“The division is currently divided and, more seriously, a climate of fear and intimidation prevails,” said Goliath. “It appears not to be a salutary practice for the partner of a judge president to serve in the same division. In respect of sensitive allocations, questions of propriety will frequently and inevitably arise.”

Goliath said that she had been sidelined in her duties by Hlophe after her involvement in a 2017 “altercation” at his Cape Town home. 

She said she had been called by Salie-Hlophe from Hlophe’s home — not where Salie-Hlophe resides — asking her to go to her house and attend to her daughters, as there had been an electricity outage. In the call, Salie-Hlophe “disclosed certain information — which I elect not to set out herein”.

“She later arrived at her house … clearly distressed and in pain. She asked me to take her to hospital and explained in graphic detail what had transpired at Hlophe JP’s house. Her hand, it appears, was injured during an altercation. The injury was sufficiently serious to require stitches,” said Goliath in her complaint.

When court term resumed, Goliath said that Hlophe “chased me out of his chambers and called me a ‘rubbish’ and ‘a piece of shit’.” She said that, in a later meeting, Hlophe said that Salie-Hlophe had “made certain damaging statements against me [Goliath] relating to the incident”. 

“I will disclose them at a later stage if required to do so,” said Goliath. It was because of these that he no longer wanted to work with her, she said. 

Xulu said he also represented Salie-Hlophe and that she stood by his statement. He said Goliath’s complaint had no merit and they would respond more fully “in the appropriate forum.”

“What triggered these past and old matters only now? We ask that question. Is there anything she is deflecting from?” added Xulu. 

Franny Rabkin
Franny Rabkin
Franny is the legal reporter at the Mail & Guardian
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