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Move could trigger constitutional crisis

THE government this week waded into the dispute that has dogged the judiciary when it asked Court of Appeal President Justice Michael Ramodibedi to step down. The call to step down comes after Justice Ramodibedi was involved in a bitter power struggle over who is senior with his then nemesis Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla who is on extended leave pending retirement in August.

The row seriously damaged the reputation of the judiciary and will require a lot of effort to repair.
But by asking Justice Ramodibedi to step down the government might have inadvertently put itself in a corner. The government must be careful that in its efforts to sort the mess in the judiciary it does not create more problems that will be difficult to resolve.

We are strongly of the view that the current impasse in the judiciary might trigger a constitutional crisis. The government might also have put itself in a tight corner through a perception that it is interfering with an arm of government that should ordinarily be seen as independent. It will need to explain itself out to wriggle from this quagmire.

A perception that the executive is interfering in the running of the judiciary could create a fresh crisis that the government does not need. The independence of the judiciary is sacrosanct.
Our constitution is clear that a judge can only be removed through impeachment. But there should be clear and substantive reasons that justify such an impeachment. Among these reasons is that a judge can only be removed when he is incapacitated and is no longer able to perform his constitutional duties.

The second is that a judge must have been involved in a gross act of misconduct to warrant a dismissal. We are of the humble view that Prime Minister Thomas Thabane should set up a tribunal to deal with the problems in the judiciary. Even the Law Society of Lesotho has also requested for such a tribunal. Such a tribunal must come up with a decision to establish if there are any grounds to impeach the Court of Appeal president. Only then can the judge be removed.

We are convinced that seeking to oust Justice Ramodibedi without following the due process of the law would be highly unconstitutional. It will likely trigger a constitutional crisis. Justice Ramodibedi is also likely to challenge the decision setting the stage for yet another bruising battle within the judiciary. We certainly do not need such a sideshow. The constant fights within the judiciary particularly between Justice Lehohla and Justice Ramodibedi have damaged the judiciary and stifled progress.

It is time to move on. We are aware that there are bigger problems that continue to haunt the judiciary. These problems are crying out for attention. Morale within the sector is at rock-bottom.
This is a sector that has been starved of resources. The huge backlog of cases has not been dealt with.
But in seeking a solution to the crisis the government must tread carefully and not trigger a fresh constitutional crisis. That process must, above all things, be constitutional.

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