Daily Maverick

New Chief Justice Mogoeng, the answer to Zuma’s judicial prayers

Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng has been nominated by President Jacob Zuma to replace retired Judge Sandile Ngcobo as Chief Justice, an indication that institution building is now top of Zuma’s judicial agenda. CARIEN DU PLESSIS reports.

So after all the wild theories about who would succeed Judge Sandile Ngcobo as Chief Justice after his retirement on Sunday, and after all the wild hopes from the women’s lobby that we’d see a skirt on the bench, President Jacob Zuma has chosen conservatively.

At noon on Tuesday Zuma’s office announced he had nominated Judge Mogoeng for the job.

The Judicial Service Commission and political party leaders in Parliament had been given until Wednesday 24 August to give their input, after which Zuma will sign the appointment.

JSC spokesman Dumisa Ntsebeza seemed to have been taken by surprise as he did not appear to know about the appointment. It’s not clear, therefore, when the JSC will be meeting on the matter.

Zuma’s choice of Judge Mogoeng is telling. Other than that Mogoeng is regarded as conservative and is devoutly religious (he is also a pastor and his voicemail message contains the greeting: “God bless you”), he is relatively young (he will be 50 this year) and has about 10 years to go on the bench. Previously from the North West bench, he has been at the Constitutional Court for less than two years, so his lack of experience is a concern.

Perhaps Zuma desperately wanted to avoid a situation similar to the Constitutional dilemma he faced recently when Judge Ngcobo’s term on the bench expired after only 18 months as chief justice. Zuma extended Ngcobo’s term, but the ConCourt ruled this out and Ngcobo stepped down (one day before the ruling was delivered).

Why Ngcobo didn’t have the Constitutional insight to decline Zuma’s offer to extend his term in the first place, is a bit of a puzzle.

He must have been keen to continue his historic and invaluable institutional work on transforming the office of the chief justice into an independent institution. In this respect, Mogoeng, as head of the task team that has been working on this issue, will provide continuity. A lot still needs to be done on this and the next couple of years will be crunch time.

The national assembly’s justice committee is processing the Superior Courts Bill and the 17th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which will grant the office of the chief justice complete independence and put him in charge of all courts –in terms of administration and finance too– from the justice department to make the separation of powers absolute. It’s been a gripe of the judiciary for ages that they had to apply to the justice department for, say, new stationery. He would also be overseeing a new code of conduct for the judiciary – something the judges haven’t been too keen on.

Although there is set to be shock among liberals over Justice Mogoeng’s appointment, DA leader Helen Zille’s reaction was cautious. “We will discuss and debate the president’s nominee internally before we comment on Justice Mogoeng’s suitability for the office of chief justice.” DM

Photo: Oupa Nkosi/Mail&Guardian

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