The National Judicial Council (NJC) has just brought down the hammer on three unlucky judges who were found guilty of granting conflicting ex-parte orders in matters with same parties and subjects. The three judges were barred from promotion to higher courts for periods ranging from two to five years when they are due. Some also received, in addition, letters of warning.
In arriving at this decision, the council confirmed that there was no written petition over allegations of corruption or impropriety against the judges. It further explained that the move to sanction the judges was part of the inherent disciplinary powers of the council as provided for in the constitution.
Before imposing this punishment on these judges, the NJC had initiated an investigation to unravel the circumstances that led to the spate of ex-parte orders granted by these courts of coordinate jurisdiction which actually was seen by most Nigerians as acts of judicial rascality. The punishment was also in agreement with the recommendations of the investigation committee set up by the NJC for that purpose.
This newspaper, in commending the NJC for arriving at this decision which it considers part of an overall process to cleanse the temple of justice, recalls, also, the embarrassing development where judges made themselves accomplices in what has generally been described as forum shopping, a deliberate act to abuse court processes for obvious personal aggrandizement by politicians in cahoots with the some judicial officers.
However, it is pertinent to state that this identified abuse of the powers of the court did not start in the instance of these three judges who, we insist, were unlucky to have been caught. It is obvious that they are not the only ones in the shameful business of mortgaging their judicial integrity for a mess of pudding.
When it is not ex-parte motion, it is also injunction or standing justice on its head as was the case in the Governorship tussle in Imo State where the Supreme Court itself awarded the seat to a candidate who won in only two local governments as against the other who won in 14 local governments. Allegations that court judgments are dependent on the depth of the pocket of the litigants are as old as the judiciary itself and have defied efforts to compel the judicial authorities to rectify the anomaly so as to save the image of the last hope of the fabled common man.
Of course, court injunctions are the cheapest items in the market, sold by judges and magistrates and bought by politicians as well as other sundry characters intent on manipulating the justice system to achieve their incendiary purposes. A court injunction can also be used to cause deliberate mischief as in the case of Justice Mary Peter-Odili. It is painful, in our considered opinion, that the mystery magistrate who did that hatchet job escaped this NJC’s hammer.
Before now, there have been demands by the public regarding the urgency of restoring the position of the judiciary in the estimation of right-thinking Nigerians who have reasons to believe that unworthy characters, who see no harm in corrupting the system, have infiltrated the entire gamut of the nation’s justice delivery system in a veiled threat to strip it of its pristine standard of incorruptibility.
Apart from occasional disciplinary reactions from the NJC in response to sustained outcry, not much has been done by that foremost judicial administrative authority to do the needful to cleanse the Augean Stable the judiciary has almost been turned into.
It is from this perspective that we earnestly applaud this NJC’s action in the hope that it will not be another flash in the pan aimed at giving corrupt judges a pat on the wrist in a manner that suggests a conspiratorial plot to protect a collective interest.
We observe, with regret, the pervasive shades of opinion which claim, rightly or wrongly, that the judiciary has seen its best days. However, one cannot but feel the nostalgia in the public space regarding the judiciary in the pre- and immediate post-Independence era. Even the days of the military junta produced courageous judges who dared to be upright in the midst of perceptible allures. In those days, with the authoritarian dispensation in place, restraint on the part of judicial officers was evident.
Notwithstanding, this newspaper considers it gratifying that the leadership of the judiciary is making moves aimed at purging itself of abuse and other imperfections. We admit that there cannot be a saintly judiciary in a clime unrepentantly enmeshed in corruption and other acts of perfidy. What Nigerians ask for is a judiciary guided by its own conscience based on the expectations of it as the last line of defence for the aggrieved and oppressed. From this standpoint, we urge the NJC to, in the exercise of this new-found courage, be meticulous and ensure that the house is swept clean.