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INTERVIEW: New York judge says justice is `nothing special’

Frank J. Labuda, the New York Supreme Court Justice in Sullivan County, New York; USA, was recently in Uganda at the invitation of Incredible Youth International, an organization that supports young change agents and leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators.He met with government officials, including Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. He spoke to The Independent’s Nicole Namubiru.

For the 40 years you have worked in the practice of law in the United States, what are the key lessons you have learned that we should learn from?

The legal system of Uganda has so much in common with the legal system of the United States. We have concern for the individual, property rights, constitutional rights, people’s rights, police practice and arrest. The judges here just like those in New York are over worked, but they try to do what is fair and just under the law. And through this I have learned to be patient and to listen.

Judges often decry poor pay and lack of facilitation to do their job effectively. How can that be resolved considering Uganda is still a developing country?

Even as a developing country, the legal system surely needs resources. All societies need a way to resolve their disputes in a peaceful way. For the economy of Uganda to grow, the business men and other members of the Ugandan society have to have confidence in the judicial system that any matters can be resolved. The legal system is something that is worth investing in.

Uganda has few judges and many lawyers have shunned the bench. How can government lure qualified and competent lawyers to be judges?

We had the same problem in New York. If a lawyer makes much more money than a judge, then the question would be, why then would he become a judge? The immediate issue would be a pay raise for the judges. This is how we went about it in the USA. Nevertheless, at the end of the day justice is service to the state and it isn’t a money making venture. Legal practitioner should know that too.

In Uganda there’s a problem of disregarding courts’ decisions. How is that handled in other countries and how does it impact on the doctrine of separation of powers.

One recent example is when a state judge from the state of Washington DC and another from Hawaii told President Trump that what he was doing was wrong and they declared his immigration ban unconstitutional. That directive was followed by the immigration and the other arms of government. So much as things like this don’t happen overnight, a country needs to be able to set principles and follow them.

There have been incidents where courts hesitate to take decisions on some matters citing interference with the executive often termed as the political question doctrine. How can it be handled to ensure that courts don’t shy away from adjudicating on any matter?

This was the question about the decision taken President Trump’s immigration ban in the USA. The question was, is it a legislative duty, judicial duty or the executive duty to decide the immigration policy of the country. It was resolved that it is the executive duty to make decision on the immigration of the country but any such decisions had to be made following the constitution. It’s a slow process and over the 300 years the constitution America has been tested by the three arms of government. Judges ought to know that they shouldn’t be involved in politics.

A lot of people are rotting away in jail on remand, some of them innocent. It is believed that justice delayed is justice denied. What can be done about this situation?

Justice delayed is justice denied is an American phrase that was coined in the 1900s when our supreme court was faced with the same issue. The only way to speed up justice is for the system to put adequate resources in the judiciary to avoid back logs. And also there should be laws put in place for speedy trials to avoid people keeping in jail for years without trial.


You spoke in Western Uganda and were advocating for plea bargaining, what are your reasons for fronting this legal cause as some have opposed it?

Unlike in Uganda where I am told plea bargaining is a recent development, in the USA we have practiced it for many decades. Because plea bargaining is reaching an agreement between the judge and the prosecutor regarding a case quicker; if the defendant owns up to a crime committed, this saves a lot of time and resources.

Don’t you think it becomes problematic if hard core criminals are given lesser sentences because they pleaded guilty regardless of the gravity of crimes committed?

I served as a prosecutor for 12 years and I am a judge today and we consult with the victim before we declare the sentence and come up with ways to compensate the victim and punish the defendant. And in cases where the victim isn’t satisfied, the law can’t do much because justice isn’t seeking revenge because some victims may want everyone killed. That is not justice.

There’s also fear that most people on remand are forced to plead guilty even when they are innocent to get a defined sentence and leave prison. How can that issue be resolved?

This is up to the judge to make sure that the defendant is not doing that. If the judge is smart enough, he will be able to tell if the defendant is telling the truth.

You met with the DPP Justice Mike Chibita, what did you discuss?

We talked about the investigation of sexual crimes and crimes against children. We also talked about the chain of custody in evidence, whether its drugs or whatever case. What the police needs to do to make sure the evidence isn’t tampered with. We also talked about the issue of confessions and how to make sure that the confessions given are voluntarily. In general I think the problems in the Ugandan judicial system are not unique.

Can there be hope for better investigation of crime for a country like Uganda with limited resources? This has been the blame the judiciary puts on the police or DPP for delayed rulings.

Every police department in the United States has the same problem.  It then becomes a political decision on how much the government is willing to invest in the judicial system.


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