OF JUDGES AND PUBLIC STATEMENTS AND PUBLIC COMMENT (PART 2)

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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.

CONCLUSION

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

Dr. Raymond Akongburo ATUGUBA is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ghana School of Law and Team Leader at the LADA Group.

OF JUDGES AND PUBLIC STATEMENTS AND PUBLIC COMMENT (PART 1)

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By Dr. Raymond Akongburo ATUGUBA

INTRODUCTION

In my first article published last week, I promised to continue to provide you, my readers, with more down-to-earth interpretations of the “Law”. This is necessary because of legal jargon and the wilful misinterpretation of laws and judgments by lawyers and social commentators. Today, we will look at what judges are permitted to say and not to say about cases decided by the courts. I would, however, like to take us on a short journey into history, before we come to the crux of today’s legal lesson. This deviation is necessary if we are to know the lawyers and social commentators we are talking about by their historical fruit, their current fruit, and thereby project the character of the fruit they will bear in the future.

In order to reveal the fruit of these lawyers and social commentators, I will need to be very direct and forthright in this article, so forgive me in advance for my directness and forthrightness.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

History is beautiful. And history matters. And history always repeats itself. It was actually 20 years ago, not 10 years ago, that I wrote the series of articles on the 1996 elections. And it was exactly 8 years ago that I wrote the article in the New Legon Observer, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2008) titled “To Comment or Not to Comment on Judgments of Courts of Law”.

The reaction from a section of lawyers (used here to include judges) and social commentators on this article and my discussion of it in the media was swift. As we say in Ghana, “they insulted me well well” for daring to say that everyone was entitled to comment on, even criticise a judgment of our courts. They lambasted me for arguing that lawyers and ordinary citizens may talk freely to the media in moderate criticism of the judgments of our courts. I repeated the same propositions in my lecture to the Ghana Bar Association Conference of that year and was essentially ostracised by a  section of lawyers as a result.

Today, those same lawyers and social commentators argue that a judge may sit on a case, rise up whilst the case is pending or impending, and make a Public Comment on the case, even to journalists. For clarity, a case is pending when it has not been disposed of by a court, and a case is impending when there is a high likelihood that it will come before a court. Matthew 7:16, “Ye shall know them by their fruits”.

Incidentally, these are the same lawyers and social commentators who, before the Anas exposé, insulted; made formal disciplinary complaints against; and without a hearing, illegally banned myself and others from practicing in the courts of law-all for daring to say that “no one can convince me that there is no corruption in the judiciary or that some judges do not take bribes”. After Anas, at least one social commentator shamelessly called in to many radio stations, insisting that the exposé has no relationship to what others and I had said four years earlier. Matthew 7:16, “Ye shall know them by their fruits”.

TO REMOVE OR NOT TO REMOVE THE NAME OF NHI CARD REGISTRANTS

Consistent with their opportunistic abhorrence for due process and the twisting of facts and reality, the same lawyers and social commentators are now calling for the removal of the names of “NHI card Registrants” from the Voters Register without Due Process and with disregard for the Rule of Law.

They say that there is no difference between “automatically removing names from a register” and “removing names from a register according to due process of law”. Without knowing it, what they are saying is that there should be no difference in the way dictatorial regimes ruled Ghana, and the way a constitutional democratic government should rule Ghana. Let’s watch it.

Automatic removal of the name of a registered voter, who lawfully and legally registered to vote, using an ID Card that the Supreme Court has confirmed was legal to use at the time she registered, is like a dictatorial government divesting citizens of their rights, in this case, the right to vote enshrined in Article 42 of our Constitution, without due process. This is why the Supreme Court, wisely, did not strike out those names from the register, as they are entitled to do, and did not order automatic deregistration, as they are entitled to do. The Supreme Court, on the contrary, held as follows on pages 22-23 of the judgment:

“As the registrations were made under a law that was then in force, they were made in good faith and the subsequent declaration of the unconstitutionality of the use of cards should not automatically (my emphasis) render them void. The legitimate way of treating them is to have them deleted by means of processes established under the law” (My Emphasis).

Removing names by due process, using the quasi-judicial methods outlined in the Public Elections (Registration of Voters) Regulations, 2016 (C.I. 91) and by the Supreme Court, is the democratic, constitutional and civilised way to go; unless we are already fed-up with the Rule of Law and Due Process and are longing and yearning for the return of dictatorial rule.

And whilst these lawyers and social commentators are busy calling for the automatic removal of names from the register without Due Process and contrary to the Rule of Law, and since they are so in love with automaticity, they may as well ask for the following:

  1. Automatic shutdown of social media without due process;
  2. Automatic throwing of people in jail by the Bureau of National Investigations (BNI) without Due Process; and
  3. Automatic deletion of SSNIT beneficiaries from the Pension list, who are suspected to be illegally present there.

THE SUPREME COURT DID NOT ORDER THAT ALL NAMES OF NHI REGISTRANTS BE AUTOMATICALLY DELETED FROM THE VOTERS REGISTER.

THE SUPREME COURT ASKED THAT THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION (EC) TAKES STEPS, REPEAT, TAKES STEPS, TO REMOVE UNDESIRABLE NAMES FROM THE VOTERS REGISTER.

THOSE STEPS ARE CALLED RULE OF LAW AND DUE PROCESS STEPS, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONSTITUTION, C.I. 91 AND THE JUDGMENT OF THE COURTS.

THOSE QUASI-JUDICIAL STEPS ALLOW, FOR EXAMPLE, FOR A PERSON WHO IS MISTAKENLY TAGGED AS AN NHI CARD REGISTRANT, WHEN, IN FACT, SHE IS NOT, TO CHALLENGE AN ATTEMPT TO REMOVE HER NAME FROM THE REGISTER, A SCENARIO PROTECTIVE OF THE RIGHT TO VOTE. AGAIN, THOSE STEPS ALLOW FOR A PERSON WHO PREVIOUSLY, AND ACTING LEGALLY, REGISTERED TO VOTE WITH AN NHI CARD, AND WHO IS NOW DEREGISTERED, TO IMMEDIATELY REGISTER AGAIN WITH A VALID I.D. CARD OR OTHER MECHANISM ALLOWED BY LAW.

NOT EVEN THE SUPREME COURT CAN ORDER THE EC TO REMOVE THE NAMES OF VOTERS WHO VALIDLY REGISTERED TO VOTE, WITHOUT DUE PROCESS AND WITHOUT REGARD FOR THE RULE OF LAW. AGAIN, THE SUPREME COURT CANNOT ORDER THE REMOVAL OF NAMES FROM THE REGISTER IN A MANNER THAT DEPRIVES THEM OF THEIR CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED RIGHT TO VOTE.

IF THE SUPREME COURT WERE TO DO THAT, SOME GHANAIANS MAY RESORT TO THE ECOWAS COURT OR THE AFRICAN COURT OR THE HUNDREDS OF MECHANISMS IN THE UNITED NATIONS SYSTEM, TO PUT PRESSURE ON GHANA TO DO THE RIGHT THING, PARTICULARLY SINCE GHANA HAS SIGNED AND RATIFIED THE CONVENTIONS RELATIVE TO THOSE BODIES WHICH PROTECT THE RIGHT TO VOTE.

THIS INTERPRETATION IS CONSISTENT WITH WHAT JUSTICE DOTSE IS REPORTED BY THE MEDIA TO HAVE SAID. HE IS REPORTED TO HAVE SAID THAT THE COURT ORDERED THE DELETION OF NHI REGISTRANTS FROM THE REGISTER IN ACCORDANCE WITH LAW, NOT AUTOMATICALLY.

THERE IS A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DELETING THE NAMES OF “NHI REGISTRANTS” AUTOMATICALLY, AND DELETING THEM ACCORDING TO THE PROCEDURES LAID DOWN BY LAW. THE TWO HAVE VERY DIFFERENT LEGAL AND PRACTICAL EFFECTS. THE ONE DENIES THE RIGHT TO VOTE TO A SEGMENT OF THE POPULATION, AND THE OTHER IS PROTECTIVE OF THEIR RIGHT TO VOTE.

You may read the continuation of this article here.

Dr. Raymond Akongburo ATUGUBA is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ghana School of Law and Team Leader at the LADA Group.