Filling 23 posts for judges has become complicated with various groups proposing new ways for President Yoweri Museveni and the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to balance competence, integrity, and politics.
Pressure is highest over replacing Deputy Chief Justice, Steven Kavuma who retires in September and two Supreme Court Judges. Other vacant slots include four in the Court of Appeal and 16 for High Court judges.
One group, which includes the Uganda Law Society (ULS), has written to JSC demanding that the names of those nominated be displayed in the media and to probably even televise their vetting process. They argue that this transparency will improve the process and give the general public an opportunity to have a say on who is appointed.
“It is a way of stopping some rogues from joining the bench. The public would own up. They exercise judicial power in the name of the people,” says ULS President Francis Gimara. According to him, the names of nominated judges for the positions should be published in the media before they are forwarded to President Museveni for selection. He says this will encourage public scrutiny of the judges.
But another group opposes the demand for public involvement and scrutiny of the nominees. Kiryowa Kiwanuka, who is a lawyer for the ruling NRM party, says subjecting such a sensitive matter to an uncontrolled public in an unmanaged discussion is dangerous.
“If we take that route, then people will start discussing their religion, where they come from. The public is not best qualified for this; if a mob decides who should be a judge, then we can as well start voting for them and also hold campaigns”.
The ULS is demanding also that the chief justice should be given power to appoint judges and that those seeking to be appointed must be who people have a consistent history of honesty and moral character in their professional and personal life.
The lawyers’ professional body wants candidates who have the intellectual capacity, legal judgement and diligence and procedural knowledge of the law.
Commenting on the appointment process, former Supreme Court Justice Professor George Kanyeihamba, says he supports publishing of names of nominees.
“There was an editorial by the New Vision saying Prof Kanyeihamba and Hon Mulenga should object to this saying I was a pillar of the Movement and also its legal advisor, and also because Mulenga was Vice President of Democratic Party. But we ultimately proved ourselves,” Kanyeihamba told The Independent in an interview.
He says the process should not be tainted by ethnic and political considerations at the cost of integrity.
“Ever since I became a lawyer, I have always been perturbed by issues of integrity,” he said, “The commission should search for people to administer justice irrespective of tribe or religion. This government is currently in the habit of selecting people who support the ruling party or the leader.”
Kanyeihamba’s views appear to touch on the constant need by President Museveni to attempt to balance a variety of interests that cut across religion, tribe and loyalty to the ruling NRM party.
He says the commission should take it upon itself to seek the views of esteemed people in the profession. “Are they going to ask such people to comment? When the commission nominated Stephen Kavuma, they called me to comment on the nominee confidentially.”
Makerere University law don Ronald Kakungulu Mayambala agrees with Kanyeihamba on the issue of politics.
“The only requirement is whether one has the qualifications. So, whether you have been NRM or outrightly partisan in another party, it does not affect your moral integrity at all. The principle is that once you take the judicial oath, you bear a high standard of integrity. For instance Justice Remmy Kasule once was a lawyer of the Democratic Party”.
President Museveni has been accused of appointing ‘cadre judges’ but Mayambala says it is not an important issue.
“That is matter of speculation because what matters is whether a judge passes the test of professional experience,” he says.
On whether the publishing of names of nominated judges could help in streamlining the process, Mayambala says it could instead mar the process.
“The law does not call for a public hearing. The issue should not be politicised. When the JSC recommends a person, you can still petition them. What you do not want people doing is to start campaigning for or maligning others,” he says.
He says even after the President has appointed judges after disregarding the JSC, it can complain against the appointments.