South Africa: Chief Justices and the Thin Line Between What to Say and What Not to Say

opinion

Once a judge takes off his or her robes and enters the wider world, that judge should refrain from making politically controversial statements.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng caused a stir last week when - in a Jerusalem Post webinar - he seemed to criticise South African government policy towards Israel, stating that as a Christian he was under an obligation "to love Israel" and "to pray for Israel".

Some of those who criticised the chief justice and some who defended him did so based on their view of Mogoeng, or on whether or not they agreed with his statements. Perhaps a better way to approach the matter is to take a step back and to ask what principles should guide a judge when making public pronouncements.

Judges are not prohibited from making public comments or from participating as citizens in public life. While judges do not have the same freedom as ordinary citizens, they retain those rights that are compatible with judicial office. The line between permissible and impermissible conduct is not always an easy one to draw, but there is a line, and judges are legally required to stay on the right side of it.

The conduct of judicial...

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