By Dr. Raymond Atuguba
This is the continuation of an earlier article published here.
Whilst dismissing the untrustworthy, deceitful, and opportunistic commentaries of these lawyers and social commentators, it is now necessary to return to our true enterprise: the exposition of the state of the law to ordinary Ghanaian citizens as best as we can. In an election year, it is important for the ordinary citizen to know the true legal effects of laws passed by Parliament, judgments issued by courts and tribunals, and Regulations and Administrative Instructions issued by the EC and other relevant administrative bodies.
Today, we would like to look at instances when a judge may comment on a pending or impending case. We will use the statements made by Justice Jones Dotse about the recent Abu Ramadan case as a point of reference for our learning. There are two aspects to the Justice Dotse Saga. The first is whether he should have spoken as and when as he did. The second is the meaning of what he said and its potential effect on the interpretation of the recent Abu Ramadan case. I have already dealt with this second aspect above.
The outstanding issue is whether Justice Dotse should have spoken and on the subject and to the audience that he did. Rule 2A of the Code of Conduct for Judges and Magistrates in Ghana, 2011, stipulates that a Judge must “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Rule 3B (2) further states that “…A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism”.
The combined effect of these two Rules is that Justice Dotse should not have allowed the public clamor for an interpretation of the judgment or the public criticism of the judgment to entice him into making a Public Comment on the case. By making a Public Comment on the case, Justice Dotse has compromised public confidence in his capacity to sit on and determine any further suit by the parties in the recent Abu Ramadan case seeking an interpretation of the judgment.
The Code of Conduct further provides in Rule 5(B) that a judge may engage in “avocational activities”, that is “activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice if such avocational activities do not detract from the dignity of his office or interfere with the performance of his judicial duties”. These activities include speaking, writing, lecturing, appearing before a public inquiry, sitting as a commissioner in a public inquiry, etc.
So to the extent that Justice Dotse was at a workshop to orient judges on the legal procedures applicable to election disputes, he was very well within his remit as a judge to do so. Justice Dotse’s attendance at the workshop, his lecture(s) at the workshop, were all within the Rules and the law.
The Code of Conduct, however provides in Rule 3C (9) (at page 13) that: “Except as otherwise provided in the section, a judge shall abstain from public comment (my emphasis) about a pending or impending proceeding in any court…A case is impending for purposes of this section if it seems probable that a case will be filed”. Due to the fact that the plaintiffs in the Abu Ramadan case have said that they will return to the Supreme Court on this very matter, one can safely state that the case is “impending”.
It is necessary for us to understand the difference between what a judge may or may not say about a pending or impending case. The Code provides in the same Rule that “A judge is permitted to make public statements (my emphasis) in the course of his or her official duties or to explain for public information the procedure of the court, general legal principles, or what may be learned from the public record in a case. At the same time, the code provides that “A judge may not discuss the rationale for a decision, however, unless the judge is repeating what was already made part of the public record. Speaking to a journalist is public comment even where it is agreed that the statements are “off the record”.
This means that Justice Dotse was acting within the law if he explained the Abu Ramadan case to the judges and magistrates assembled for training. He was also within the law if he talked to them about the rationale for the decision in that case based on (and not outside of) the judgment and related material in the Abu Ramadan case, which judgment and material is part of the public record. These are “public statements” that are permitted by the Code of Conduct. However, Justice Dotse departed from the Code when he spoke to a journalist on an impending case. That is “public comment” and is proscribed by the Code of Conduct.
The effect of this breach is that Justice Dotse has to be sanctioned. For Rule 7 of the Code of Conduct provides that “Where a Judge commits a breach of any rule of this Code he shall be sanctioned with reference to the gravity of the act or omission constituting the breach in accordance with the Judicial Service Regulations.”
I have listened with incredulity at lawyers and social commentators arguing that Justice Dotse did no wrong. They argue that there is no difference between “public statement” and “public comment”. Every first year law student is taught that where a lawmaker uses two different words or expressions in the same document, they are presumed to express different things and to have different meanings. This principle is part of our rules of interpretation. Yet, we are hearing and reading lawyers say that “public statement” and “public comment”, as used in the Code of Conduct, must be presumed to mean the same thing. Ebei! A simple search on the internet will reveal that “Public Comment” is a term of art, whilst “public statement” is ordinary English Language. When lawyers and social commentators descend to this level of deliberate distortion and misinterpretation for their own ends, they do not serve the public interest and should cease to be taken seriously.
Public Statements by a judge on a pending or impending matter are permitted by the Code. Public Comment by a judge on a pending or impending matter is proscribed by the Code. Speaking to a journalist is Public Comment according to the Code and is, therefore, proscribed. It is as simple as that.
We need to be very careful when we do legal or constitutional analyses, because the soul of the Nation and the rights and responsibilities of our people depend on it. Rush analyses can lead everyone astray.
In conclusion, going forward, we expect our judges to engage in avocational activities, and to make public statements during such activities. This is what Justice Dotse did when he oriented other judges and magistrates on electoral laws and how they should interpret and apply them. Advancing the capacity of our judges and magistrates can only be a good thing and must be encouraged.
However, we do not expect our judges to make Public Comment on pending or impending matters, including speaking to journalists on such matters. This is all the more important in an election year where a section of the population can hang on the extra judicial Public Comment of a judge for nefarious purposes.
THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR ATTENTION