And there will be justice for all . . .

2011-07-30 11:01

There are several ways of taking in the Constitutional Court ruling that the legislation that President Jacob Zuma relied on to extend Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo’s term of office was unconstitutional.

We could sneer at the legal advice given to the Presidency and ­argue that it ought to have known better than to impose an unconstitutional piece of law on us.

But we would rather read the process of challenging the provisions of section 8a of the Judges’ Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act as having been worth the effort and time.

Its ­lessons have been worth every cent of the costs the court held government must pay.

Nothing about what is constitutional and what is not should be taken for granted. More so in a young constitutional democracy such as ours.

There will certainly be questions as to whether or not Chief Justice Ngcobo withdrew his acceptance of the extension only upon learning that the judgement would go against him.

Any answer to that question would for now be mere speculation.

Civil society organisations that took the matter to court risked and endured jibes that stopped short of assuming a racial character.

We applaud them for their insight and willingness to place our Constitution first even at the risk of attempts at painting them as relics of a past we would all rather forget.

The civil society organisations that took up the matter demonstrated an important principle, which is that citizens are the guardians of the Constitution.

It is not only the province of judges and certainly not of politicians to instinctively know what passes constitutional muster and what does not.

Similarly, the public asked a legitimate but ill-informed question of why none of these organisations raised the constitutionality of the law when previous chief justices Arthur Chaskalson and Pius Langa had their terms of office extended.

We say the question was ill-informed because it conflated section 176(1) of the Constitution, which says a judge holds office for a non-renewable term of 12 years or until he or she reaches the age of 70 – whichever comes first – except where an act of Parliament extends the term of office of a Constitutional Court judge, with the contentious section 8 of the same act, which the court ruled allowed the president to “usurp” the power of Parliament and held that Parliament alone had the power to extend a Constitutional Court judge’s term of office.

The Presidency must also have learned that there can be no shortcuts in the process of doing what is constitutionally permissible.

The other lesson for us is that regardless of our stations in life we are all enjoined in defending our Constitution.

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