Between Activism and Restraint, The Supreme Court of Kenya Must Balance the Exercise of Judicial Power

SCOK

“We also speak knowing that it is our duty to ask ourselves what is the use of having a Constitution if it is not honoured and respected by the people. The people will lose faith in the Constitution if it fails to give effective protection to their fundamental rights. The people know and believe that destroy the rule of law and you destroy justice, thereby also destroying the society. Justice of any other kind would be as shocking as the crime itself. The ideals of justice keep people buoyant. The courts of justice must reflect the opinion of the people.” – Chief Justice Madan in the case of Stanley Munga Githunguri vs Attorney-General (1985).

A functioning constitutional democracy requires a judiciary that is both impartial and independent. A judiciary that accepts it as its duty to give full effect not only to the letter of the Constitution guaranteeing fundamental rights and freedoms, but also its spirit.

For the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.

In reality, judicial power is potentially no more susceptible to abuse or misuse than legislative or executive power but the difference is this: the abuse or misuse of legislative or executive power can be policed by an independent judiciary but there is no effective constitutional mechanism to police the abuse or misuse of judicial power. Where there is no constitutional referee to review judicial wrongs, the judiciary’s responsibility becomes all the more onerous upon of its officers. It is therefore crucial for judges to remain conscientiously alive to the truth that with this potentially awesome breath of judicial power comes great judicial responsibility.

Most of us have read the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Kenya (available here) in the matter of several Presidential Election Petitions challenging the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s declaration of Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta as the duly elected President of the Republic of Kenya. In this judgment, the highest court in the land purports to give reasons in detail why it unanimously dismissed the presidential petitions before it, effectively paving the way for the assumption into office of Mr. Kenyatta as the fourth Commander-in-Chief of Kenya.

At the heart of this 113-paged judgment on the “political-cum-constitutional” electoral process is a clear dichotomy between matters the Supreme Court Justices considered to be “constitutional-legal” and those they considered to be “political”, the latter being perceived as non-justiciable and beyond the competence of the court. For many, paragraph 203 of the judgment is crucial as it problematises the Judiciary’s role to give full effect to both the letter and spirit of the Constitution:

“…we express the opinion that, in the special circumstances of this case, an insightful judicial approach is essential. There may be an unlimited number of ways in which such an approach is guide the Court. But the fundamental one, in our opinion, is fidelity to the terms of the Constitution, and of such other law as objectively reflects the intent and purpose of the Constitution.” (Emphasis mine)

It is indeed tragic that the Supreme Court does not elaborate in any measure of detail as to what this insightful approach entails or whether their understanding of fidelity relates only to the black letter of the law or whether it extends in due measure to the spirit of the law.

Implicit in the court’s judgment is the acceptance that in the case of a Presidential election, the court should be guided by an approach of judicial restraint as the question before it is more political than constitutional-legal. Therefore the court was persuaded, with questionable arguments supported by equally questionable Commonwealth precedents, that the standard of proof in Presidential Election Petitions should be artificially higher than it ought to be so as to curb judicial intervention in matters where the electorate are deemed to have exercised their political choice by casting their vote.

It is ironic that in arriving at this troubling decision in favour of judicial minimalism, the Court was guided by the celebrated South African case of Minister of Health v Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) (2002) 5 SA 721 (CC). However the Court failed to distinguish this case from the case before it and crucially point out that the TAC case clearly illustrates that judicial activism in constitutional adjudication is viable and part of modern day constitutional jurisprudence. The passage lifted from the TAC case and referred to by the Court at paragraph 223 of the judgment was not the holding of the South African Constitutional Court in that case! The passage cited at paragraph 223 was the contention of the South African government’s counsel in an attempt to avoid being held accountable for its HIV/AIDS policies at the time. The South African apex court, however, held that no system of separation of powers is absolute, since “there are certain matters that are pre-eminently within the domain of one or other of the arms of government”. The South African court therefore found that it has powers to evaluate the reasonableness of measures taken by government, where they are challenged for being unconstitutional. Thus where appropriate, the theory of separation of powers would not preclude that Court from making orders that have policy implications, and such a ruling does not result in a breach of the theory of separation of powers.

The extent of judicial restraint exercised by the Supreme Court in its judgment is at the core of the collective disappointment shared by many Kenyans. In a well reasoned and must-read dissection of the judgment by seasoned constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina (available here), he opines:

“The unhappy feeling one comes away from this judgment with is just how stringent the standard that the Court imposes on petitioners is. And, conversely, save for the rather tame recommendation that IEBC be investigated and maybe prosecuted, just how so very lenient the standard by which IEBC’s performance has been judged is.”

In this vein, we should all take heed of the wise words of former South African Judge Albie Sachs who is currently a member of Kenya’s Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Board. In his eloquent judgment in the case of Prince vs President of the Cape Law Society and Others, Sachs reflected that: “Undue judicial adventurism can be as damaging as excessive judicial timidity.”

What Kenyans needed to see come out clearly in this judgment of Supreme Court was a balance between these two approaches of activism and restraint. In a country of vast inequalities and historical injustices such as ours, judges cannot afford to be textual, formalistic and mechanical in their interpretation of the Constitution. A purposive, contextual and liberal approach to constitutional adjudication is crucial as it provides for protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as against claims of state security and national stability.

In light of this judgment one wonders whether this judiciary will survive the potential onslaught led by rogue parliamentarians, kleptocratic cabinet ministers, and others who may have little regard for the Judiciary. After all, the Judiciary has no army or police force and neither does it have the power of the Purse. Judges are not elected and therefore do not have the natural support that leaders of the majority party might have by mere virtue of being leaders of the party.

Therefore, the Judiciary relies heavily on the confidence bestowed upon it by the public for its independence and impartiality. In an earlier post, this blogger condemned the Executive Branch of Government in strong terms for interfering with the Judiciary through harassment and intimidation of its members including the Chief Justice. Indeed a functional constitutional democracy is one where the public is vigilantly alive to the important role played by the judiciary in protecting the rights and interests of ordinary citizens – including those that form the electorate.

However, the people of Kenya must always hold the Judiciary accountable and responsible for any and all exercise of judicial power. In the present case, it is our solemn duty and responsibility to criticise and lay blame squarely on each of the Supreme Court Justices that have individually and collectively misused the sovereign power donated to them by people of Kenya as enshrined in the Constitution.

If the loud silence that currently reverberates from many quarters of our country is anything to go by, the courts of this land must double their efforts to (re)build public confidence in the Judiciary.

NHIF Fiasco: Constructive Tension, Individual Conscience and Access to Information under the Constitution

The nation continues to watch as the National Health Insurance Fund is embroiled in controversy over how a certain Clinix Healthcare Ltd received Sh202 million for treating civil servants, of which Sh91 million went to non-existent or ‘ghost’ clinics. Understandably, everyone is interested in knowing who are the directors and shareholders of Clinix Healthcare Ltd. However there is a larger issue that we must grapple with, that of responsibility. Responsibility here must be seen in two ways: collective and individual. Collective responsibility means that because of the actions of a greedy few within NHIF, both its Board and Management owe Kenyans Sh202 million. By extension, the government through NHIF’s parent ministry: Ministry of Medical Service is also responsible since it failed to regulate, supervise and monitor the goings-on at the embattled health parastatal.

But to many the more pivotal question is that of individual responsibility.

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The Law is Broken: The Doctors’ Strike Isnt The Only Thing that May Be Unconstitutional

It is Day 3 of the on-going doctors’ strike by members of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) and despite their willingness to try and avert a nation-wide health crisis through negotiation and mutual settlement, the government has decided to play hard ball with a profession that literally holds the lives of Kenyans in its hands.

Many have argued that the Constitution is on the side of the doctors’ two fold: firstly it protects their right to take industrial action and secondly the State is under a positive obligation to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Kenyans both from a health care perspective as well as from a general human rights perspective.
However, constitutional rights are not absolute especially where there are competing rights such as the right of the general public to the delivery of essential services, which arguably would include health care services.

Before we discuss these weighty matters of legality, let’s start from the beginning.

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Nelson Mandela Lives!

Dear Kenyans,

To honour Mandela on this Nelson Mandela International Day, the UN asks everyone to devote 67 minutes to public service. In the Tata Madiba spirit, DR suggests the following good deeds for the day:-

1. Read a story-book to small children eg. Mike Sonko & Co.

2. Help the blind e.g. the GOK. by printing out the entire Constitution in braille so that they can finally SEE what Kenyans are making such a big fuss about.

3. Help the deaf e.g. Kenya Power, by coming up with your own pictoral ads to tell them how you really feel about their services.

4. Help the needy e.g the Nyachae-led Commissioners who have apparently been working pro-bono for over six months.

5. Be kind to animals e.g Parliamentarians. by dangling the “carrot” of your 2012 re-election vote, only on condition they shape up.

But on a serious note, this time last year I wrote a post “When Mandela Dies” to coincide with Madiba’s 92nd birthday but more so as a reaction to the surprising news that the UN had officially made July 18th Nelson Mandela International Day. It seemed a liiittle premature to me, but hey, these things happen right? Anyways, based on the comments we recieved, the general consensus seems to be that Mandela is no god and the world must simply tone-down on the hero-worshipping. Even South Africans themselves amidst the Mandela-mania also admit that Mandela was/is not perfect. But the difference between them and the rest of us is that while we are quick to start comparing Mandela to Obama, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and others, South Africans simply look at the man that is Nelson Mandela. South Africans have watched him go from man to myth and now more than ever want to emulate him.

As one SA journalist puts it:

“His transformation from a world renowned prisoner to a global icon has been phenomenal. The secret must lie in his proven ability to reinvent himself and the astuteness of those who worked on his image when he could not do it for himself. Perhaps we should not be altogether surprised. Mandela has been meticulous and deliberate about the building his own image for a long time – an exercise fanatic, a snappy and a strategic dresser for nearly fifty years. If one adds to all these a deliberate campaign of defiance – inside and outside the country – designed to make his name known, the result could only be an icon and a myth of global proportions.”

All in all, Mandela will forever be a global icon in his own right. Although there’s always a tendency to compare him with other historical figures of the world, we should never forget the role he has played and continues to play in putting the African continent on the map.

Happy Birthday Madiba!

Marriage Law Debate: Are Kenyans Inherently Polygamous?

“Since we became independent and in the 10 lives of the Independent Parliament, we have not found time to legislate over our families. One could almost ask whether our independence has not just been skin-deep if we have not bothered to liberate our families from dictation by such colonial relics as the family Laws of 1962.”
– Judy Thongori, a leading Family Law practitioner

The history behind the failed attempts to enact a comprehensive Marriage Bill in our country is something former law lecturer, now Deputy Supreme Court Justice Nancy Baraza once termed as ‘very sad indeed’. It is no secret that both the 1970 and the mid-1990s parliaments shelved the bill because of their strong opposition to the proposed criminalisation of adultery and the non-recognition of polygamy. See, polygamy in particular is deemed to be part and parcel of “african” culture ergo any Western law that went against this was considered “Un-african”.

So now, thanks to Nancy Baraza and the good folks over at the Kenya Law Reform Commission, we now have a new Marriage Bill. A Bill that doesn’t criminalise adultery and expressly recognizes polygamous marriages. The question I would love to be answered by our women is whether a declaration by their spouse-to-be that their marriage is potentially polygamous would deter them from getting married in the first place? And perhaps more generally, does this provision promote/condone promiscuity by men in society?

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What a Horrible, Horrible, Horrible Time to be a President

by tripppleO

“When thousands of peoples is riled up to see you
That can arouse ya ego, we got mouths to feed so
Gotta stay true to who you are and where you came from
Coz at the top will be the same place you hang from
No matter how big you can ever be
For whatever fee or publicity, never lose your integrity”

– Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones (aka ‘Nas’)

Long hours on the campaign trail, packed and charged rallies, meetings with campaign donors, countless election strategies and counter strategies all culminating in the announcement of the win and the swearing in ceremony. It’s all usually glamorous and inspiring to most people looking in from the outside. Although the campaign period is extremely stressful and draining on the candidate the really hard work begins once that candidate is sworn into office.

Just ask Barack Obama. After his ‘landslide’ win he embarked on achieving some of his campaign promises and he was successful in some most notably healthcare and Wall street reform. However, there is the big issue that has dominated news in the States these last 6 months (not Osama) have been the budget deficit. Make no mistake, the U.S debt is a serious global issue. While the risk of the U.S defaulting on its debt may be a bit farfetched, given the close linked global economy, it is crucial that they sort out their debt issue. As most economists will confirm the two ways to cut a deficit are either reduce spending or increase taxes. However, both options are politically risky for any American president. (There’s also the increased tax receipts/collections option as a result of economic growth but this is more long term in most cases and highly dependent on economic growth).

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