The Supreme Court and public criticism — The Guardian Editorial

Posted by News Express | 17 March 2023 | 418 times

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•The Supreme Court of Nigeria


The statement issued the other day by the Supreme Court of Nigeria warning Nigerians against undue criticisms of its judgment, Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, and their Lordships of the court is undoubtedly unprecedented, perhaps in the entire history of the court. The tradition has always been that judges, especially Supreme Court Justices, are to be heard and hardly to be seen.

It would appear that the court’s statement, coming outside of any proceedings in the hallowed chamber of the court, is tantamount to showing itself, and, some have stated, baring its fangs. However, their Lordships have gone through, or still going through the tradition of wearing thick cloths against public criticism which in the past has not dented the revered image of the apex court. It is important nevertheless that the court observe caution so that it does not send a wrong message that it is unduly sensitive to, or not ready to tolerate public criticism, particularly of their judgments.

In a fairly long statement titled ‘Be mindful of unwarranted attacks on the judiciary,’ issued by its Director of Press and Information, Dr. Festus Akande officers, the Supreme Court said that insinuations that its justices were bought over “by some unknown and unseen persons” was nothing short of “a bizarre expression of ignorance.”

The statement was a tacit reference to the court’s recent judgments in the high-profile political cases of Lawan V Machina and Godswill Agbabio V Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and others, in which the court endorsed Akpabio and Lawan as candidates for the Senatorial seats of their constituencies even though they were not available for the primaries on May 28, last year, as they were at the time contesting for the presidential primaries of their party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Since the Electoral Act does not support their desire, many Nigerians considered the court’s verdict as controversial and have criticized them as such.

But in response, the Supreme Court urged their attackers to channel their grievances to political parties who could not manage their affairs well and ended up having about 600 cases from the party primaries alone; and that the court was duty bound to adjudicate on the matters brought before it, to the best of its ability and in accordance with the law. “We have made it abundantly clear on different occasions that judicial officers are neither political office holders nor politicians that should be dressed in such robes. Our silence must not be mistaken for weakness or cowardice.

Certainly, every Nigerian citizen has an inalienable right to express his or her opinion without any encumbrance; but even in the course of expressing such fundamental right, we should be circumspect enough to observe the caution gate of self-control in order not to infringe on another person’s right,” stated the court, adding:“So, for anyone in their right frame of mind to insinuate that some unknown and unseen persons have bought over the justices is a bizarre expression of ignorance, which definitely has no place in law or even in the realm of pedestrian reasoning.” The court also emphasised that its silence must not be taken for weakness or cowardice

The court’s reaction is certainly surprising. It is granted that judicial independence accords the Supreme Court the freedom to decide disputes and interpret the Constitution and law in accordance with legal principles and a sense of justice, no matter whose ox is gored; However, the Supreme Court should be reminded that it is accountable to the people in terms of its overall performance and in meeting the justice needs of the people in a timely and efficient manner.

It should, therefore, interpret the law in a way that fulfills the needs and aspirations of the Nigerian people, as envisioned in sections 13, 14 (1)(2)(a)(b)(c) of the 1999 Constitution. It must not only dispense justice but also be seen to manifestly dispense justice. This is why Lord Hewart, the then Lord Chief Justice of England, laid down the dictum in the case of Rex v. Sussex Justices, [1924] 1 KB 256, that “it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

Therefore, the Supreme Court ought not to be surprised that its decisions, particularly in the cases of Ihedioha V Hope Uzodimma and recently Lawan V Machina and Akpabio V INEC and others, are evoking excoriating public criticism and perceived somewhat as perverse. The decisions show that the Supreme Court is slavishly adhering to technical legalisms and formalism at the expense of substantial justice.

Although Akpabio and Lawan did not contest senatorial primary elections in their respective constituencies as a result of their involvement in the Presidential Primaries of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Supreme Court ordered the INEC to recognise them as candidates for the February 25 elections. Justice is rooted in confidence and perception.

The essence of the need for justice to be manifestly seen to be done was also observed by Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, in Metropolitan Properties Co (FGC) Ltd v Lannon when he stated: “Justice must be rooted in confidence, and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking: ‘The judge was biased.’” To date, the public constantly refers to Imo State Governor, Hope Uzodinma, who came fourth in the last Imo State Gubernatorial Election, as the “Supreme Court Governor,” because they feel that the Supreme Court was wrong in imposing him on the people of Imo State.

The Supreme Court should not be afraid of public criticism. Criticism of judges has a long recorded history, dating back to Biblical times. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul lampooned the judges who subjected him to punishment without trial, even though he was a Roman citizen. Even judges criticise their brother judges. Lord Denning once said, “We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it.

For there is something far more important at stake; it is no less than the freedom of speech itself. It is the right of every man, in parliament or out of it, in the press or over the broadcast, to make fair comment, even outspoken comment, on matters of public interest. All we ask is that those who criticise us should remember that, from the nature of our duties, we cannot reply to criticisms. We cannot enter into public controversy. We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication.”

Therefore, no matter the criticism against it, the Supreme Court should not descend into the public arena to join issues with its critics, as it has just done. At all times, it must maintain its equanimity and candour in the face of criticism. Dragging the Supreme Court into public controversy is undignified and unbefitting of their exalted position. Addressing the High Court Journalists Association on December 3, 1964, Lord Denning said: “Justice has no place in darkness and secrecy. When a judge sits on a case, he himself is on trial…if there is any misconduct on his part, any bias or prejudice, there is a reporter to keep an eye on him.” This admonition should constantly be uppermost in the hearts of judges.

However, members of the public should avoid denigrating the Supreme Court, or any other court, unduly, because the judiciary, as an independent arm of government governed by the democratic principle of separation of powers, remains the last hope of the common man. As Lord Hailsham once said while speaking at a banquet in London, there should be some self-discipline in the criticism of judges. Let criticisms be well-informed, well-researched, and temperate.

The Supreme Court must strive to live up to its billings always, as Nigeria’s highest court. Some well-settled principles of law have been made by the current Supreme Court to appear not so settled, thereby ridiculing the principle of stare decisis and lowering people’s confidence in the law. Therefore, the Supreme Court should retrace the path of excellence, honour, and integrity to enhance judicial efficacy and efficiency and to bolster public confidence in the Court. The Supreme Court should be reserved for the best and brightest in character and learning, not for deadwoods or lazybones or corrupt judges. The appointment and elevation of judges to the Supreme Court should be based on merit and high scholarship, not seniority or political patronage.

There should be a departure from the age-long practice of elevating only Court of Appeal Justices to the Supreme Court. Suitably qualified senior lawyers with pedigree and respected academics should be appointed to the Supreme Court to beef up its legal scholarship. The National Judicial Council (NJC), the body responsible for the appointment of judicial officers, is not obliged to appoint Supreme Court Justices from the stock of serving Court of Appeal Justices or abide by the civil service bureaucracy in such appointments. For example, in 1972, Dr. Teslim Olawale Elias was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court all the way from the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, and he later rose to become the world-acclaimed scholarly Chief Justice Nigeria has ever produced. Justice Augustine Nnamani (of blessed memory) was appointed to the Supreme Court from the Bar. Justice Okay Achike (of blessed memory) was appointed a High Court judge from the academia and elevated to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, respectively, in no distant time. There are more Dr. Eliases, Justice Nnamanis, and Justice Achikes waiting to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

The views of many practicing lawyers, who probably know the candidates better than anybody, should be sought before and even after short-listing the candidates to be considered for elevation to the Supreme Court. Elevation to the Supreme Court must not be used for rewarding political party loyalists or family friends. A Supreme Court Justice must not allow his political leaning to cloud over his sense of justice. He should season his speech, especially his public speech, with the salt of mortification. Disciplinary action against Justices of the Supreme Court should be routinely carried out to salvage the Court from moral degeneracy. Only incorruptible and irreproachable Justices can steer the Supreme Court out of the present muddy water and free of public skepticism.

The Supreme Court justices should be reminded that they are not infallible. The Pope, in his supreme apostolic authority, is said to be infallible when he speaks ex-cathedra on matters of faith and morals. However, the Supreme Court justices are not infallible in their judgments. This is why Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa (of blessed memory) stated in the landmark case of Adegoke Motors vs. Adesanya, that: “We are final not because we are infallible; rather, we are infallible because we are final.” The Supreme Court justices should remember that they are mere mortals and are therefore not immune to committing errors and even miscarriages of justice.

The current Supreme Court Justices should strive for the sterling qualities and integrity of their brother Justices and predecessors at the Supreme Court such as  Justices Kayode Eso, Mohammed Bello, Chukwudifu Oputa, Andrews Obaseki, Augustine Nnamani, Anthony Aniagolu, Adolphus Karib-Whyte, George Adesola Oguntade, Muhammad Lawal Uwais, and Niki Tobi among others. Throughout their illustrious stint at the Supreme Court, the aforementioned Supreme Court justices distinguished themselves by their integrity and exceptional brilliance in expounding and expanding the law in accordance with substantial justice. Therefore our current Supreme Court justices should emulate the shining examples of their predecessors at the court.

By their special vocation as unbiased umpires in the dispensation of justice in the highest temple of justice in the land, the Supreme Court justices ought to be the most disciplined officers in the temple of justice. Like Caesar’s wife, they should not only live and behave above board but also manifestly be seen to live and behave above board. Judges are honoured and revered because of their impeccable character. This is why the Supreme Court justices should be cautious in joining issues with their critics in the media and public space, save perhaps to correct or clarify very sensitive issues. The public conduct, public behavior, and public utterances of Supreme Court justices should be seasoned with the ingredients of mortification so as not to erode public confidence in the judiciary or send wrong signals to the public.


Source: News Express

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