Is the law community finally getting ready to stand up to the JSC?
On Saturday night, as Earth Hour plunged the world into darkness, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) quietly went about swearing in its controversial five new High Court appointments.
The ceremony, held at the JSC premises in the former Presidential Palace, marks the second time in less than a year that the JSC has sworn in judges under circumstances that are legally dubious and highly challenging for democratic consolidation.
The first occasion was in August 2010 when the JSC disregarded Article 285 of the Constitution relating to the educational and other qualifications of the bench and arranged for close to 200 judges to re-take their oaths, regardless of their professional or ethical qualifications.
160 of the judges had been originally appointed by the previous regime, and over a quarter of them possessed criminal records. Many more failed to meet the required educational qualifications by a long shot, having only attended primary school – an establishment that is yet to be known as a bastion of legal education.
Although the JSC had then decided to treat Article 285 as nothing more than ‘symbolic’, its Annual Report 2010 published this month lists a total of 191 judges as having been sworn in last year ‘under Article 285 (c)’.
The implication is clear, and clearly false – the judges were reappointed to fulfil the stipulations of Article 285.
According to the JSC – except for President’s Member Aishath Velezinee who launched an emotive appeal against the procedure as the judges prepared to re-take their oaths – such a ceremony adequately met the constitution’s ‘symbolic’ requirement for judicial reform.
None of the sitting judges, nor any other member of the law community, mounted any significant objections to JSC’s dismissal of the Constitution as ‘symbolic’ and proceeded to re-take their oaths, implicitly legitimising JSC’s approach.
JSC’s ‘winning’ streak
Until now, this initial tacit complicity of the law community in the JSC’s actions had remained largely unchanged as lawyers and judges all appeared to turn the other cheek as the number of allegations of unconstitutional policies and activities in the JSC continued to mount.
Indeed, none of the cases brought against the JSC have so far been successful. This state of affairs is even more remarkable when it is taken into account the JSC’s ‘wins’ have been due to technicalities rather than reasoned argument or skilled interpretations of the law.
In January last, for instance, the Civil Court threw out a lawsuit brought against the JSC by Treasure Island Limited, which alleged that the Commission had been deliberately negligent in its constitutional duty to investigate all complaints of judicial misconduct.
Despite an admission by the JSC during the hearings that it did not have a standardised procedure for dealing with complaints – or anything else for that matter – the Civil Court threw out the case when the plaintiff was late for what was to be the penultimate hearing.
The dismissal meant that the JSC’s complaints procedure – or lack thereof – eluded legal and public scrutiny despite clear indications that such an examination was necessary in light of JSC’s methods for dealing with complaints, which were at best ad hoc by its own admission.
Last Thursday, it was on almost exactly the same grounds that the Supreme Court dismissed Criminal Court Judge Abdul Bari Yousuf’s lawsuit against the JSC alleging that the policy adopted by the JSC to select candidates for the high Court bench was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
Judge Abdul Bari, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, had violated court regulations by taking leave without giving prior notice to the court as is required of all claimants in an ongoing case. On these grounds the case was thrown out.
The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the case becomes all the more confounding when seen in light of the force and speed with which it moved to acquire the files from the Civil Court where Judge Bari first lodged it.
Citing ‘public interest’, and the magnitude of its importance to the Constitution, the Supreme Court on 21 January used an unprecedented Writ of Prohibition to force the Civil Court to hand over the case files.
Shortly after, the Supreme Court ruled that given the gravity of the matter, only the Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the case. The Civil Court, it said, did not have the authority to decide constitutional matters or matters relating to a higher court.
No need for a lawyer
After two sittings, in which JSC member Dr Afraasheem Ali – appointed as JSC’s representative to the Supreme Court after some frantic self-lobbying over the ‘big telephone in the JSC’ – denied all wrongdoing, the Supreme Court threw out the case.
Despite having been officially made aware of a leaked audio which provides evidence of the unorthodox – if not illegal – methods by which Dr Afraasheem managed to confirm himself as the JSC’s legal representative, the Supreme Court did not raise any objections to his new role as ‘defence counsel’.
Although the JSC is composed overwhelmingly of judges or other legal professionals Dr Afraasheem is not one of them. In fact, despite the growing number of lawsuits against it, the JSC is yet to hire a professional lawyer – hence the need for members to moonlight as defence counsel, qualified or not.
As it turned out, not much training or skills were called for as the Supreme Court threw out the case on 24 March without addressing the issues that the Court itself had deemed as highly important.
The Supreme Court decision, delivered after 4:00pm on Thursday, freed the JSC to swear in its new appointees. It did not waste any time, quickly arranging for the ceremony to take place not much more than 24 hours later.
Although Supreme Court regulations provide a seven-day period in which a claimant can appeal a ruling, JSC’s expedited oath-taking ceremony effectively pre-empted any such action by Judge Bari.
The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the case also means that the concerns raised by Family Court Chief Judge Hassan Saeed alleging similar violations of the Constitution by the JSC in its High Court appointments were not addressed either.
By the time he lodged his case, also at the Civil Court, the Supreme Court had ruled that only it had jurisdiction over the matter. His case, too, was then transferred to the higher court to be heard with Judge Abdul Bari’s case.
Personal interest versus public interest
Unlike the oath-taking ceremony in August last year, there appears to be less appetite among members of the judiciary to swallow whole the JSC’s interpretation of the Constitution this time around.
Back then none of the judges stood to make a personal loss in re-taking the oath. The negative impact of such an action would have been, and has been, on the public’s faith in the independence of the judiciary.
In the current dispute, however, the JSC’s appointment criteria as well as the Supreme Court’s dismissal of any alleged wrongdoing on the part of the JSC have cost the appellants – and other unsuccessful candidates – a seat on the High Court bench.
The personal cost appears to have galvanised the law community into action in ways that the JSC’s dismissal of the Constitution in August 2010 did not.
Judge Hassan Saeed, for instance, wrote to President Nasheed on Saturday, asking him to apply the powers vested in the executive by Article 115 of the Constitution, which accords the president both the right and the duty to intervene in furtherance of the rule of law.
Judge Hassan Saeed’s appeal to President Nasheed to use his executive powers to bring the JSC in line marks not only a potential turning point in the law community’s attitude towards the JSC and the role of the courts in supporting it; it also signals a u-turn in the judiciary’s perception of the executive’s relationship with the judiciary.
When President Nasheed criticised the JSC in June 2010, when it first decided to disregard Article 285 of the constitution, the Judges Association of Maldives (JAM) was scathing in its response.
In a press release, JAM described President Nasheed’s condemnations of the JSC’s actions at the time as ‘disrespectful towards the honour and dignity of judges’, and said his criticisms were indicative of the ‘negative view he holds of the judiciary’.
The Judges Association also accused the president of attempting to unduly influence the JSC, which it said, would ‘render separation of powers obsolete’.
It is not known yet whether President Nasheed has responded to Judge Hassan Saeed’s letter, a copy of which Minivan News has obtained.
If the president does heed the call to intervene in the matter, the law community’s reaction would tell whether or not it has arrived at a point where it is willing to stand up to threats to judicial independence – perceived or real.
As Pakistan’s law community demonstrated in 2007, the strongest ability to establish and protect the independence of the judiciary lies within itself and not outside of it.