The Sunday Times Editorial

8th December 1996

47, W. A. D. Ramanayake Mawatha Colombo 2. P.O. Box: 1136, Colombo 2.
Telex: 21266 LAKEXPO CE
EDITORIAL OFFICE Tel: 326247,328889, 433272-3 Fax: 423258, 423922
ADVERTISING OFFICE Tel: 328074, 438037
10, Hunupitiya Cross Road, Colombo 2. Tel 435454, 548322

Monkeying with judiciary

During the week, the country saw an unprecedented courtroom battle where seven judges of the Supreme Court sat to determine the correctness of the appointment of a brother nay sister judge. The historic and precedent-setting verdict on this issue will be probably delivered in the week to follow. But not only is the highest court in the land in turmoil but there is clearly a crisis in the entire judiciary regarding appointments and promotions.

The Kumaratunga administration has unnecessarily got itself into a thorough mess. The President has been ill-advised if not misled. Backed possibly by career judges who cannot articulate themselves due to an oath of silence, quite a substantive section of attorneys have petitioned the Supreme Court about the appointment of Shiranee Bandaranayake to the same court.

The link up between the Justice Ministry and the Presidential Secretariat in this major dispute has exposed another glaring imbalance in the executive presidential system in general where the Secretariat becomes the pivot of all operations. Badly briefed Presidents obviously make bad decisions. Cut away from realities, they listen mainly to hurrah boys and quickly fall into trouble.

The appointment of Shiranee Bandaranayake as a judge of the Supreme Court has unfortunately got enmeshed in partisan politics with pro-government lawyers openly supporting the appointment and overstepping the traditional bounds of propriety and familiarity with a judge, while other sections are going to the other extreme.

This however has given rise to conjecture that the government is playing politics with the judiciary and trying to “pack the bench”, as it were, with those who may look positively or favourably on important constitutional issues that might come up.

Pro-PA lawyers argue that the former UNP regimes also did the same, appointing so called pro UNP judges . But when the PA government was elected, the people expected a change from whatever was bad, not more of the same.

Belatedly the Kumaratunga administration has appointed the President of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, something that should have been done seven months ago. It did it only when it had plenty of eggs on its face.

Thank heaven saner counsel has prevailed at least now. There was almost a revolt in the ranks of the country’s Judiciary.

Even appointments to the Court of Appeal have been held back for over nine months. Judges of the High Court, District Court and Magistrate’s Court are all blocked in the promotion pipeline. Why? We are too embarrassed to say why this is so. Ask anyone in Hulftsdorp and they will tell you what’s holding up these appointments.

A strong and independent Judiciary is the main and often the last bastion of a free people in any society. That is why despite political gerrymandering by all governments during the past quarter of a century and on several occasions when democracy was falling apart it was the Supreme Court that held aloft the last torch of freedom for our people. Sri Lanka’s judiciary has been monkeyed with for too long. There was a time when one arrogant minister referred to ‘my judges’ on the court and also a time when state sponsored thugs stoned the residences of judges who gave rulings that did not please the government of the day. At the rate we are going the day will not be far off when the judiciary of this country becomes so politicized that it will be something like what the Police Department has become. That will be the day when our people will ask from their leaders and from themselves what went wrong.

Quo Vadis, O! Justice

Go to the Political Column

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Editorial Archive