Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Judicial selection in South Africa

The Judicial Services Commission (JSC) is currently in the process of filling 30 vacancies around the country. In the USA a Supreme Court position has just fallen open with Justice John Paul Stevens retiring. It is quite damning that people reading South African newspapers will probably hear as much, if not more, about the US selection process than they will about the South African process. Granted, in the USA Obama will be appointing a Supreme Court judge while here there are no Constitutional Court judges being appointed. However, I would wager that the coverage we get on Stevens will still surpass the coverage we got on the appointment process last year of a number of seats on the Constitutional Court. In light of this I thought I would do a very short post on how judicial selection happens here in South Africa.

The Constitution sets out the basic framework by which judges are appointed in South Africa. The Constitution gives both procedural requirements and substantive considerations for the appointment of judges.

The procedure to follow when appointing judges varies according to what vacancy is being filled. If the posts of Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice (who head the Constitutional Court) are being filled then the President must consult with the JSC and leaders of the parties represented in the National Assembly. This procedure was brought into dispute last year when President Zuma intimated that he was going to appoint Justice Sandile Ngcobo without first consulting heads of the parties in the National Assembly.

If the posts of President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court of Appeal are being filled then the President need only consult with the JSC.

The other judges of the Constitutional Court are appointed by the President, as head of the national executive, after consulting the Chief Justice and the leaders of parties represented in the National Assembly, in accordance with the following procedure:
  1. The JSC must prepare a list of nominees with three names more than the number of appointments to be made, and submit the list to the President. 
  2. The President may make appointments from the list, and must advise the Judicial Service Commission, with reasons, if any of the nominees are unacceptable and any appointment remains to be made. 
  3. The Judicial Service Commission must supplement the list with further nominees and the President must make the remaining appointments from the supplemented list.
The President must appoint the judges of all other courts on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission.

Some important points about this procedure: Although the President is making the appointments his discretion is very circumscribed by the obligation to consult with the JSC and use nominees made by the JSC. This is in contrast with the USA where the President often introduces a candidate and then has to convince the legislature to pass the nomination.

This then begs the question as to how the JSC reaches its own shortlist that it hands over to the President. I won’t go into detail here (since frankly I am not entirely sure) but suffice to say the following people are members of the JSC: the Chief Justice, President of the SCA, one Judge President of the various High Courts, the Minister of Justice, two practising advocates to represent the profession, two practising attorneys, one teacher of law, six persons from the National Assembly, four persons from the National Council of Provinces, four nominees of the President and when considering High Court matters, the Judge President of that High Court and the Premier of that province.

So, the JSC is composed of a high percentage of politicians (many of which will be pushing an agenda very similar to the President’s agenda). But it also has a number of members that will be semi-independent of that political influence like the members of the judiciary and the profession. I am told that the opposition politicians that sit on the JSC are often some of the most vocal (De Lille from the ID, Van der Merwe from the IFP and Schmidt from the DA) and active during the questioning which suggests that they may play a larger role than expected in the JSC’s final decision. How the JSC arrives at its final decision is still slightly murky.

As mentioned above, the JSC is currently interviewing people to fill 30 vacant positions at various courts around South Africa. It will then recommend names to the President who will then appoint those people.

What the procedure does not tell us is what sort of person should be appointed to the bench. Here the Constitution (correctly) gives very little guidance. It merely stipulates that such a person must be appropriately qualified and for Con Court positions be a South African citizen (s 174(1) of the Constitution). The JSC must also consider the need for the judiciary to reflect the racial and gender composition of South Africa (s 174(2) of the Constitution).

However, besides these constraints the Constitution doesn’t say whether the people should be executive minded, liberal, conservative, a positivist, a Dworkinian etc. There is an unfortunate lack of discourse in South Africa around what type of people should be appointed as judges. The Democratic Governance and Rights Unit has released a good paper outlining their vision of what judges should look likethat you can find at this link (pdf). But besides this and the very occasional op-ed in a paper it doesn’t get discussed. I will put up my own thoughts in the future on what a good judge in South Africa would look like and try and harass friends into doing guests posts on it. Till then I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Dumisa Ntsebeza is a Presidential appointee but also an advocate. He was in the papers today because of his (entirely correct) questioning about the appropriateness of appointing white males to the bench in the Eastern Cape.


  1. Just have an open-minded look at s178 of the constitution. Then, according to who appoint which of those members, it is obvious that the ANC has the majority representation on the JSC. So they're in the position to appoint only puppets and supporters.
    Its a deeply flawed and misused body.

  2. In any democracy the majority will generally get the candidates onto the bench that they support. This is particularly so of the ANC that is able dominate the JSC.

    However, that doesn't mean that public opinion and debate won't have some impact on the judges that we select. One of the problems with the JSC at the moment is that it doesn't have the critical eye of the public on its proceedings. JSC hearings are poorly attended. I was chatting to a friend the other day who attends these and he is of the opinion that just increasing attendance at these hearings would make a dramatic difference to the proceedings. It would ensure that those who sit on the JSC realize that their political masters aren't the only people evaluating their performance.

  3. my concern is that I can find neithera list candidates, nor a list of nominations of the judges!

  4. Could someone please inform me how long it should take to get a judgement after seven years of civil litigation. Heads of Argument were made in January 2010. Acting Judge Mlonzi who was seized of the case, has gone missing. My life has gone down the toilet during this appalling wait. Can I ask for a mistrial ? My child and I now live in England on state welfare, having had to spend everything we had on legal fees. liz.coll@yahoo.com