New chief justice search put on ice

HARARE - The hunt for Zimbabwe's new chief justice has been put on ice after the High Court suspended today's scheduled public interviews yesterday.

The chamber ruling followed the recent urgent court application by a University of Zimbabwe law student, Romeo Zibani, who queried the process to choose the country's next head of the bench, who will take over from the retiring Godfrey Chidyausiku early next year.

However, the Judicial Services Commission (JSC)  which was set to conduct the interviews in Harare this morning, said immediately that it would appeal the decision by Judge Charles Hungwe to stop the selection process.

“The provisional order is granted in terms of the amended draft,” Hungwe said yesterday in his ruling which JSC lawyer Addington Chinake said would be challenged at the Supreme Court once the judge gives his full judgment today.

Zibani argued that the panel set to interview the shortlisted candidates was made up of either friends, colleagues or bosses of the candidates, a situation he claimed was “incestuous”.

The JSC is hunting for a new chief justice to replace Chidyausiku, who is retiring from the bench at the end of February, after joining the Supreme Court in March 2001.

Those shortlisted for the job are Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba; Justice Paddington Shadreck Garwe of the Supreme Court; Justice Rita Tambudzai Makarau, another judge of the Supreme Court; and Justice George Mutandwa Chiweshe, the Judge President of the High Court, who is said to be a hot favourite of the Munhumutapa establishment.

The hotly-contested selection of the new chief justice has since taken a factional tone, as brawling Zanu PF factions have taken their fights to include seeking to determine who becomes the next leader of the bench.

This follows a surprising decision on Friday when the Ministry of Justice acquiesced to a court challenge by Zibani, who — apart from wanting the court to stop the interviews — is also seeking an order giving President Robert Mugabe the power to appoint the country's new all-powerful leader of the bench.

Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who also doubles up as Justice minister, sent a memorandum to Cabinet last week proposing a number of changes to Section 180.

At the same time, the Justice ministry also came up with a draft Bill which will amend the same Section 180 to give Mugabe wide discretionary powers to appoint a chief justice of his choice.

At present the JSC presides over the selection of judges and derives its powers from Section 180 of the new Constitution which legal experts say promotes the independence of the judiciary.

Section 180 says that whenever it is necessary to appoint a judge, the Judicial Service Commission must advertise the position, invite the president and the public to make nominations, conduct public interviews of prospective candidates, prepare a list of three qualified persons as nominees for the office; and submit the list to the president whereupon, subject to subsection (3), the president must appoint one of the nominees to the office concerned.

“If the President considers that none of the persons on the list submitted to him in terms of subsection (2)(e) are suitable for appointment to the office, he or she must require the Judicial Service Commission to submit a further list of three qualified persons, whereupon the President must appoint one of the nominees to the office concerned,” it reads.

Experts and the opposition fear that if this section is amended, the independence of the JSC and the modicum of transparency that is exhibited during public interviews will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The new constitution adopted in 2013 trimmed Mugabe's powers and no longer allows the nonagenarian to appoint judges on his own authority.

The Cabinet memorandum prepared by Mnangagwa seeks to convince his colleagues in the executive to embrace the proposed amendments and restore all appointing powers to Mugabe.

“It is proposed by this amendment that the office of Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice and Judge President of the High Court be appointed by the President after consultation with the Judicial Service Commission and that the office of Senior Judge of the Labour Court and the Administrative Court be appointed by the Chief Justice,” the memo reads.

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