No grudges, says top judge
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Tania Broughton and Colleen Dardagan
EXPERIENCE won the day over politics and race issues yesterday when the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) announced Judge Chiman Patel as its choice for KwaZulu-Natal Judge President.
If President Jacob Zuma gives the appointment the nod – which is usually a formality – Judge Patel, who turns 64 next month, will become the first Indian judge president in the country, and the majority of the legal fraternity in the province will breathe a sigh of relief.
The contest for the top job was primarily between judges Patel and Isaac Madondo, and it was one based on race, which turned ugly at the JSC interviews last week when Madondo suggested Patel was “not black enough” to tackle transformation issues.
With people streaming into his office yesterday to congratulate him, Judge Patel said: “I don’t bear any grudges. I would prefer not to say anything. My duty as a leader of this division is to build team spirit and move forward.”
He said Judge Madondo had spoken to him since the controversial interviews, although he had not heard from him since the JSC announced its decision at noon yesterday.
During the interviews, it was suggested as a compromise by commissioner Dumisa Ntszebeza, SC, that Judge Madondo be considered for the deputy judge president’s job.
Judge Patel can appoint an acting deputy judge president pending an interview and selection process by the JSC. However, he said he would not do this.
“I have been doing both jobs since the death of (former judge president) Judge Herbert Msimang, so I will continue doing so for the next three or so months and let the JSC decide.
“In this way, every candidate who wants to throw his or her – and I emphasise her – hat in the ring will have an equal chance, without creating any expectations.”
While he had the support of Advocates for Transformation, Nadel and the majority of judges in the division, three judges and the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Black Lawyers Association threw their weight behind Judge Madondo.
In documents before the JSC, legal transformation bodies were at each other’s throats, with unidentified members of the Black Lawyers Association accusing Judge Patel of not being interested in the “Africanisation of the Bench”.
This drew an angry response from Advocates for Transformation’s Rajesh Choudree, who said the “withering racist criticism” was shocking.
And it became clear at the interviews that Judge Madondo was also in political favour, with Premier Zweli Mkhize batting for him. Mkhize could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Judge Madondo backed down graciously, saying: “I am happy for him.”
“I am not disappointed,” he said, adding that he had not heard anything regarding the deputy judge president’s position.
Contacted for comment, a backer of Judge Madondo, Pietermaritzburg advocate Bhekinkosi Buthelezi, said: “I did not know he (Patel) had been appointed. We wish him all the best.”
IFP MP Koos van der Merwe, the commissioner who tackled the race issue head-on during the JSC interviews, said the commission had been “impressed with Patel’s unblemished track record”.
Durban attorney Mvuseni Ngubane said: “This is good news. Patel is a good jurist.”
The KwaZulu-Natal Law Society said: “It is pleasing to note that the JSC has made this merit appointment.”
Judge Patel has 12 years experience as a judge. He is known to be hands-on, with a down-to-earth and often humorous touch.
As acting judge president, he has already tackled the problems of criminal appeal backlogs and says he hopes to have the situation up to date by February next year.
He has, with the assistance of the registrars, also managed to set down the civil court rolls for next year, giving litigants plenty of time to choose their counsel and address pre-trial skirmishes. A concern, he says, is the increase in the number of people seeking to solve social problems in court.
“There is a separation of powers and the courts cannot adopt social agenda programmes; that is up to the executive. Judges must tread cautiously between these demands and the role they play as judges in a social democracy.”
What would he like to be his legacy? “If I can achieve what the constitution enjoins of me: to ensure efficient, expeditious delivery of justice,” he said.
l The Judicial Services Commission also announced its preferred candidates for the three vacant judge’s posts in the province.
They are Rashid Vahed, SC, and Jacqui Henriques, both at the Durban bar, and Zaba Phillip Nkosi, a Scottburgh magistrate. All are currently doing stints as acting judges.