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Should We Sack Judges Who Want to Be Kings?

  • February 1st, 2005

In 2004 Labour Ministers woke up to what they had done in getting rid of appeals to the Privy Council. Shocked recognition of the government’s vulnerability to “judges who would be Kings”, as columnist Chris Trotter called them, produced curt exchanges between Ministers and top judges. Dr Cullen used his speech at the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Parliament to warn of judicial threats to Parliamentary sovereignty.

More extraordinary was the current Attorney General’s reaction. Could the Margaret Wilson calling the Chief Justice a “shop steward’ for the judges be the same person who in 2003 rammed through the Supreme Court Bill expressly so the court could “develop an indigenous law for New Zealand”?

Until then it was never worth trying to stack our courts with political cronies. Their decisions could be appealed to neutral international umpires in London. They tended to cut down the hobbyhorses of local judges.

The next six months could see Act working with Dr Cullen in his new job as Attorney General, and with Labour MPs, to curb judicial ambitions. As the Act member of the new Parliamentary committee to review our constitution I want to highlight the lawyerisation of New Zealand. We must end constant second-guessing by unelected judges and beat back the swarms of lawyers who now afflict every decision process.

It is wrong to blame the judges. Both Labour and National knowingly wrote law in fuzzy, feel-good terms. They wanted judges to invent the details they dared not make clear in Parliament. For example, Ministers were too cunning to set out race discrimination and privileges in recent education and local government laws. Instead these laws refer to the spurious “partnership” and the mythical “principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”. Judges have to try to give meaning to these terms.

Our rule of law once ensured that people could shape their conduct according to rules stated in advance, and not to the discretionary whim of rulers or judges. That meant rule-makers could not make up rules in hindsight, as they went.

Parliamentary sovereignty protected the people against arrogance in their lawmakers. Once every three years, MPs who make law we don’t want can be sacked by voters without explanation or appeal for unfair dismissal.

The rule of law also required impartial judges. Their independence from the government is secured by near lifetime job security. Only Parliament can sack them, and it virtually requires catching them with their hands in the till. There is a price for this job security. Judges are supposed to apply Parliament’s law whether they like it or not.

Now we have judges who claim that they can over-rule or define some Parliamentary laws out of practical existence. Consider a trivial example. Six months ago a judge decided that teacher Paul Hopkinson’s protest burning of our flag did not “ destroy or damage the New Zealand flag in any manner with the intention of dishonouring it”. She persuaded herself that such burning was instead “free speech” in terms of international human rights law.

In these decisions modern judges are changing the law as they go. That is what the seabed and foreshore decision did. The Court of Appeal reversed longstanding law to hold that the Crown did not own the beaches. Under the conventions of our constitution if they thought a mistake had been made 40 years ago, they should have upheld existing law, and then urged Parliament to change it.

Some of our judges are openly ambitious to stand equal with Parliament as a source of law. Recently retired Lord Cooke of Thorndon proudly acknowledges that he is within the class labelled by critics as “judicial supremacists”. And while taking issue with the label, he mentions a recent article by Chief Justice Sian Elias as confirming, “that she is a notable recruit ”.

Such judges claim to draw on alleged “deep common-law constitutional rights”, and the “growing tide of international laws” to overrule or disregard law they think is old-fashioned. But international law is rarely law at all. It has been described as “instead a series of political platitudes cited by devotees to bolster their latest agenda”. Some judges call on their superior knowledge of ”community values” to decide that law is outmoded. But how do they know more about community values than the community voting on its own behalf?

Those who want power without the risk of being sacked can have good intentions. In some countries the military take over from chaotic democrats. Priests overrule the wicked representatives of the people. Judges in countries with written constitutions have powers to strike down legislation. It is often abused.

That experience shows limited success for protective devices, like multi-party or ’apolitical’ appointment processes, and carefully worded oaths of office.

Some have tried a more obvious way to deal with political judges. They are made to face the politicians’ discipline of having to be voted in by the people, and the risk of being voted out.

Most thoughtful commentators reject voting judges in. Democracy leaves them beholden to their supporters. Nor is it good at selecting the best candidates. On the other hand democracy is very good at voting out people who have outstayed their welcome.

Some Pacific neighbours, including Californians among fifteen States in the US, and the Japanese have the right to vote out Supreme Court judges. Japanese voters get the right once every 10 years. The nearest a judge has come to being removed was a 15.2% vote. In California voters have a rarely used right to block the renewal of Supreme Court judges’ appointments. In a celebrated 1986 case Californians removed three out of five Supreme Court judges, after they had persistently frustrated criminal law reforms and blocked the use of California’s death penalty.

My New Year’s resolution is to press Parliament’s new constitutional review committee to take a close look at citizens’ rights to recall judges.

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