Judging the Judges: CJ means business or business as usual?

Chief Justice Tan Sri Zaki Azmi seems to be initiating bold reforms and is raising the bar for our judiciary. According to media reports, he had even asked two High Court Judges to leave for being grossly inefficient. He is sending a clear and unmistakable signal: he means business.

Lawyers have noted that there are obvious improvements in the court system since Tan Sri Zaki took over the helm of the judiciary. Judicial officers are more prompt in disposing cases, court staff are more friendly and responsive, and the general work ethic of the court has improved.

Perhaps, after so many years of lagging behind in terms of having a world class judiciary, we are finally making some progress. Every positive step that we are taking should be celebrated.

Having said that, we must remember that we still have a long road ahead of us.

To begin with, there must be some serious cracks in the judicial appointment and promotion system which allows two “grossly inefficient” High Court Judges to hold such high office in our nation’s judicial hierarchy.

High Court Judges wield enormous powers and their decisions have far-reaching implications on the day-to-day life of Malaysians. In some cases, they even hold the power of life or death for accused persons. Entire fortunes of both companies and individuals hang in the balance as High Court Judges apply the law to the factual matrix of each case. As such, we must have people of the highest intellectual capacity, those with a rigorous work ethic and of unquestionable integrity sitting on the Bench.

Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi left, as one of his administration’s, legacy the Judicial Appointments Commission. While the Commission boasts of eminent current and former judicial personalities, what is obviously missing is representation from the legal profession and civil society.

Compare our judicial appointment process with that of the United States. President Obama recently nominated Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter on the United States Supreme Court. However, before Justice Sotomayor could ascend to the Bench, she was subjected to intense and rigorous questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She was grilled on issues ranging from her poorly chosen words in public speeches to her judicial temperament on the Bench before being confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. The function of a Senate confirmation hearing is to ensure that a Supreme Court Justice is highly-qualified and of irreproachable integrity, suitable for the eminent office that he or she holds.

If we truly aspire to have a world class judiciary with world class judges, perhaps the appointment of our High Court Judges, Court of Appeal Judges and Federal Court Judges should include a (public?) hearing before the Judicial Appointment Commission. Nominees for the various positions should be tested on their mastery of the law, personal integrity and professional accomplishments and contribution to the legal profession.

They must be able to stand up to the most robust of scrutiny. And, the hearings should be carried out live, telecast, for all to see the quality of the nominees. The hearings should also involve representatives from the legal profession and civil society who may pose questions to the nominees. This will ensure that all the stakeholders of our judiciary are involved in the appointment process of judges.

Judges are the pillars of our judicial system and the ordinary people of Malaysia deserve only the most qualified people to sit on the Bench. We certainly need to weed out the “grossly inefficient” and Tan Sri Zaki’s bold initiative to ask the two errant High Court Judges to leave is a move in the right direction. However, we must continuously up the ante and strive for excellence.

Certainly, clearing the threshold of “grossly inefficient” is just passing the minimum standard. To have a world class judiciary, our judges must be meet the “maximum evaluation” test. For that to happen, the appointment of our judges must involve the various stakeholders.

Surely, if judges are going to sit in judgment of others for their entire professional tenure, the rakyat have the “right to first refusal”, and judge whether the nominees are, in the first place, qualified to sit as judges.

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Wong Fook Meng is a lawyer from Malacca and a member of the Bar Council's Constitutional Law Committee. He also serves as a leader in City Community Church. He speaks regularly in churches and attempts to integrate faith with the duties for nation building whenever possible in his messages. He believes true transformation begins from the inside out and hopes and prays that the nation's leaders are guided by an inner sense of truth, justice and integrity so that corruption and abuse of power can be restrained. Like most Malaysians, he rather talk politics than do something concrete to change things. But, he is also beginning to realise that unless ordinary rakyat like him begin to take proactive steps to push for positive change, things will remain the same. His wife, Tan Joo Li, is a principal of a child care center. He hopes future leaders of the nation will have a child-like innocence when it comes to corruption.

Posted on 15 September 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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