Judges at war: in what could be a defining moment in South Africa's nascent constitutional democracy, judges of the highest court of the land, the Constitutional Court, have publicly accused another judge of improperly trying to influence a decision. And it is no ordinary judicial decision as it relates to the political future of the country-the trial of Jacob Zuma, the president of the ruling ANC Pusch Commey reports from Johannesburg.

Author:Commey, Pusch
Position:South Africa
 
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In a landmark issue, the judge president of the Cape Provincial Division of the judiciary, Justice John Hlophe, has been accused of having paid an "unholy" visit to two judges of the 11-member Constitutional Court-Justice Bess Nkabinde and Justice Chris Jafta-allegedly to influence them to be kind to the ANC president, Jacob Zuma, whose trial on corruption and tax evasion charges begins in Durban on 14 August.

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Hlophe allegedly claimed he had political and intelligence connections and was acting on a mandate. He was further alleged to have threatened that he would be made their boss if Zuma came to power, and would fire them if they ruled adversely in three cases pending before the Constitutional Court which have serious implications for Zuma's trial.

The South African judicial system has four tiers. The coal face is the Magistrate's Court where practically all criminal and civil cases start off. A large majority of cases start and end here.

Next comes the High Court, which handles serious criminal matters and appeals from the magistrate's court, as well as more serious civil matters. The higher Supreme Court deals with appeals from the High Court in all matters.

Then comes the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, which handles largely constitutional issues referred to it by the other courts. The president of the constitutional court serves as the head of all the courts. Ever since Jacob Zuma was investigated, accused of corruption and fired as the deputy president of the country by President Thabo Mbeki, legal and political skirmishes have been going on without end over many aspects of the law. Practically every decision has gone all the way to the Constitutional Court.

One such case related to a search and seizure operation carried out on the home and offices of Zuma and his lawyer in 2005. Several documents were seized and have formed the basis of new charges preferred against him. He challenged the legality of the operation all the way to the highest court. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the operation was valid and that the documents could be used in Zuma's trial. Now the issue is the constitutionality of the operations, especially with respect to documents seized from the offices of his lawyers, which in legal parlance are privileged, or immune from such actions, for the simple reason that legal representation becomes severely compromised if the prosecution...

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