The status of judges within a democratic system is sacrosanct because they are given the mandate to preside over dispensation of justice. If you look at the judicial oath when you appoint somebody to the bench, he swears to do justice to all manners of person without fear, affection or ill-will. They even have the power to sentence persons to death. They are like representatives of God on earth. If you look at the architecture of the courtroom, the judge’s position is higher than that of every other person in the court. They are select persons — Professor Akin Oyebode.
Judges sit on life and death cases. Sometimes, they give judgments that would cripple conglomerates and multi-nationals. The Federal Republic of Nigeria lost the Bakassi Peninsula on the Gulf of Guinea to Cameroon based on a judgment of the International Court of Justice in The Hague in October 2002.
The President, governors and legislators enjoy some privileges based on their offices, just as the members of the bench, the judges, also enjoy some privileges based on their offices. Judges are revered and respected.
By the peculiarity of their roles, they enjoy a different salary structure from the mainstream civil service.
In the same vein, a lot of burden is placed on them. For instance, they cannot talk to the press, they cannot accept gifts, they are rarely seen in public, even when seen, they must not be heard.
Even though we say all men are equal, by their roles and position in a democratic society, the law places judges slightly above everyone else. But when they fall short of expectations of their high office, they are not spared. They drink the hemlock, or they are burnt at the stake. It is as simple as that. Corruption is pervasive in Nigeria and it affects all facets of human endeavours. So, in the case of judges, if they are found to have committed acts of malfeasance or acts unbecoming of their high office, we burn them at the stakes.
By the provisions of section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria, every Nigerian is entitled to freedom of speech and expression. This presupposes that anyone (including the man against whom a judge has delivered a ruling) can write a petition against a judge or anyone whom he or she, in his reasoning, has engaged in conduct unbecoming of a judicial officer. Such person might also suspect, or believe, or recklessly conclude (since a judgement was delivered against him, maybe as a result of his lawyer’s non-diligence) that the judge has been compromised. And more so, if his lawyer had hinted him that the ruling should have been in his favour.
And so he writes a petition on a baseless, fictitious ground that the particular judge had been compromised, and hell is let loose when such petition lands on the pages of newspapers.
And since judges are not permitted by their oath to address the press, this isolated, unsubstantiated petition would inevitably become a subject of ‘beer-parlour’ discussions and thus, a premise for all too generous commentators to vilify and lampoon the judge in question, and of course, the entire judiciary, even before the statutory investigative organ opens the petition.
It is not hard to imagine the mental, psychological toll this would take on a forthright judge, who is simply doing his job, in full compliance with the oath he took.
The bigger toll is on the judiciary, whose integrity would be unjustly eroded.
There’s no civilised nation in the world where the president, the vice president (and governors) do not enjoy immunity from criminal and civil suits against their persons. The rationale is that these public offers should not be bogged down with depositions and court processes.
In their favour, the system presumes that the kind of person who would emerge as a President or Governor of an ideal society would be above water level, in terms of character. Moreover, conflict of interests cannot be ruled out where the President or the Governor is being tried by a judge, whose appointment was approved by that same President or Governor.
Judges don’t have immunity from trials and civil actions. However, is every anyone entitled to write whatever petitions against any judge? Absolutely! Nonetheless, a judge shouldn’t, while discharging his duty, have to worry about whether his name would be mentioned in the next news bulletin because his ex-wife’s new boyfriend might want to spite or disgrace him. That would do more harm than good.
Judges deserve a decent modicum of protection from media sensitisation. Yes, they try cases and people. Not in the media; but in the court rooms.
- Fagbamigbe, a broadcaster, sent in this article from Fresh FM, Ibadan.