THE legal profession and the judiciary are full of conventions and traditions, some of which are a total waste of time and some of which are quite important.

Traditionally, judges president were the most senior judges in the division — usually with a few years to go before retirement.

I think seniority is one of the important traditions. I do not think it is a virtue in and of itself — how long a person has been at it does not always reflect how good they are.

But the practice of seniority acts as a glue, it keeps the judiciary — quite a fragile institution when going through huge changes — united.

Longevity commands respect and, when there are big changes happening, judges president need that respect.

I’m told by older lefty lawyers that, as an unbreakable tradition, seniority was long chucked out by the National Party, which fiddled with it when the most senior judge was too independent.

Immeasurably more justifiably, after 1994, seniority has often been disregarded by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to ensure the leadership of the judiciary did not stay white.

So it was about time that seniority was disregarded to ensure that the leadership of the judiciary did not stay overwhelmingly male — as pointed out by my two new favourite judges, Connie Mocumie and Mahube Molemela.

Judge Mojalefa Rampai was the most senior judge in the Free State High Court. In his interview, he talked about how hard it was for him and former judge president Judge Thekiso Musi, the first two black judges in the court, to make their way in the Free State High Court, known for its conservatism. Mocumie and Molemela were years younger than Rampai — both in age and in time on the bench. Neither had acted as judge president before. However, Molemela was appointed as judge president.

I’m told by older lefty lawyers that, as an unbreakable tradition, seniority was long chucked out by the National Party, which fiddled with it when the most senior judge was too independent.

I felt for Rampai. It must be hard to have suffered through being on the wrong side of the seniority tradition — especially as one of the pioneering black judges. And then, when he gets on the right side of seniority, it dissolves.

But Mocumie and Molemela were just as impressive.

Not only did they come off as skilled, experienced and confident, but they were gender activists and very unapologetic about it.

They called the JSC commissioners out on their (possibly unconscious) gender bias. Why, they asked, was it okay to break the tradition of seniority when it came to race transformation, as had been done in most courts, but not when it came to gender?

Why was it okay for a man to be appointed judge president without having acted (like Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was when he was appointed judge president of the North West) but not for a woman?

But maybe the best reason to forgo seniority, at least insofar as the appointment of judges president is concerned, is that under the new Superior Courts Act the role of judges president has broadened considerably. The administration of the judiciary has also now been handed over to the judges themselves.

On top of all the administration, judges president will soon not just be responsible for the judges in their courts, they will also be responsible for the magistrates in their provinces. Given the importance of this post nowadays, judges president need to have a lot of energy and strong administrative skills. They need to be workhorses.

I’m not saying the most senior judge cannot have these. But if he doesn’t, he should not be judge president.

It is true that younger judges president may struggle to command the respect of the much older judges, but I am pretty sure that someone like Molemela will do just fine.

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