Chief justice case is politically motivated – Zuma

2011-06-16 07:54

President Jacob Zuma today dismissed the legal challenge to a term extension for Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo as politically motivated, while the General Council of the Bar of South Africa (GCB) urged him to follow proper process.

Zuma said those who were challenging his decision to allow Ngcobo to serve for another five years, on the basis that the law he used to do so was unconstitutional, had been silent for 10 years since the legislation was passed by Parliament.

“This law was passed by this House 10 years ago after careful consideration.

“I therefore acted in terms of an existing law,” he told the National Assembly in his reply to the debate on the presidency’s budget.

“Now we are being told by some in this House and in the legal fraternity, that this law is unconstitutional.

“They have been sitting with this law all these years, and now they say it is a problem.”

The president added, straying from his prepared speech: “You see, we can’t make the laws and one day when they are applied and they do not suit our own personal interests, then they want to change them.

“When the law is being applied we have a problem because we’ve got certain political considerations. That’s a problem.

“The Constitution... why didn’t you see this 10 years ago, that this law is not in line with the Constitution?

“Because there was no decision taken by the president at the time and now (you) wake up to it and think there is a problem... ,” Zuma said.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University and the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution on Tuesday launched an urgent court application to have the law declared unconstitutional and Zuma’s decision invalid.

The two bodies are taking issue with Section 8(a) of the Judges’ Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act of 2001, and have stated expressly that the challenge was not intended “to impugn the integrity or the ability” of Ncgobo.

But Zuma accused critics of the extension of using the office of the chief justice as a “political football”.

“We urge all parties to respect the independence of the judiciary and the integrity and dignity of the office of the chief justice.

“They must not use the office as a political football.”

Zuma said if members of Parliament felt there was a problem with the law, they should deal with it in the Superior Courts Bill.

During the presidency’s budget debate, Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said she approved of retaining Ngcobo but that it should have been done “by an Act of Parliament” as Section 176 of the Constitution demands and not “under an Act”.

The amended section states that a “Constitutional Court judge holds office for a non-renewable term of 12 years, or until he or she attains the age of 70, whichever occurs first, except where an Act of Parliament extends the term of office of a Constitutional Court judge”.

The GCB yesterday pleaded for the Constitution to be respected and for Parliament to pass a law to sanction Ngcobo’s extension.

It said the controversy that had arisen because of Zuma’s reliance on Section 8(a) of the 2001 Act, risked casting “unintended reflection” on Ngcobo, his office and the administration of justice in general.

“The GCB points out that it is open to the legislature to adopt legislation specifically extending the term of office of the chief justice and in doing so put the growing controversy to bed.”

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos has pointed out that, contrary to the president’s claim that critics had been silent for a decade, the amendments legislated in 2001, when Arthur Chaskalson became chief justice, raised considerable controversy.

At the time, many argued that allowing politicians to decide for how long a judge served would create the impression that he or she was not independent and raise suspicion of rulings in favour of the government.

Chaskalson retired in 2005 without the law amendments being enacted.

The Justice Alliance of South Africa (Jasa) said yesterday that it intended approaching the Constitutional Court for a decision on the matter.

It would file papers on Monday, asking for direct access to the court, the coalition said in a statement.

“Jasa is satisfied that justice requires immediate access to the highest court in the land which must ultimately decide the issue.

“To take the route of going first to the high court imposes an unjustified burden on a single judge and makes it impossible for the matter to reach the Constitutional Court before the deadline of August 16.”

The coalition added its voice to those organisations arguing that Zuma acted contrary to the Constitution when deciding to extend Ngcobo’s tenure.

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