Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo. Picture: ALON SKUY
Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo. Picture: ALON SKUY

The complaints laid by Western Cape judge president John Hlophe and his deputy Patricia Goliath against each other could amount to gross misconduct if substantiated, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo says.

The two most senior judges in the Western Cape High Court have been embroiled in a public spat after the contents of serious complaints laid against each other were leaked.

Zondo chairs the judicial conduct committee, a statutory body comprising senior judges of the “superior courts”. The Hlophe matter was referred to his committee by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).

On Wednesday the secretariat of the judicial conduct committee released a statement setting out the steps it will take in the Hlophe-Goliath saga.

It said Zondo referred the two complaints to the committee to decide, after both Hlophe and Goliath make their representations, whether the complaints should be investigated and reported on by a tribunal. The committee will make a recommendation to the JSC.

“After considering both deputy judge president Goliath’s complaint against judge president Hlophe and judge president Hlophe’s complaint against deputy judge president Goliath, the deputy chief justice was satisfied in terms of section 16(1) of the Judicial Service Commission Act that each one of the two complaints, if established, would be likely to lead to a finding by the Judicial Service Commission that the respondent judge in each complaint is guilty of gross misconduct,” the statement said.

A tribunal is not the only option available to the judicial conduct committee in the matter. A less severe alternative would be for the committee to refer one or both complaints to Zondo so he can designate a member of the committee to conduct an inquiry in terms of the Judicial Service Commission Act to determine the merits of the complaint. This option may only be taken if it is established that the misconduct, though serious, is not impeachable.

The secretariat said the judicial conduct committee meeting is set for Friday, February 21 at the Constitutional Court.

The committee said Goliath and Hlophe have been invited to make representations to it by Monday February 17. They have also been informed that, if they get permission from Zondo, they can address the committee.

The saga erupted after Goliath lodged an official complaint with the JSC, alleging “gross misconduct” by Hlophe and his wife Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe, which she said compromised the proper functioning of the Western Cape High Court.

In the complaint, which was leaked to the media, Goliath  accused Hlophe of preferential treatment for his wife, assaulting and verbally abusing two judges, and attempting to influence the appointment of judges seen as “favourably disposed” to former president Jacob Zuma to preside over the Earthlife Africa case involving the nuclear deal the former president was pushing.

Goliath wrote of an environment of fear and intimidation in the high court. She also alleged that Hlophe’s wife was a “law unto herself”, determining her own working days and hours, as well as playing a central part in the appointment of acting judges.

Salie-Hlophe, who is a judge in the same court, has since responded to Goliath’s allegations saying she was an innocent victim caught up in the deputy judge president’s plot to oust the judge president so she can succeed him.

She also accused Goliath of racism, ulterior motives and having an “unhealthy obsession” with her marriage.

Hlophe hit back, filing a counter-complaint, alleging that Goliath’s accusations were false, according to a report in the Mail & Guardian newspaper which saw the complaint. Hlophe said the falsehoods in the allegations damaged the administration of justice in the high court. He said the reference to Zuma was an “irresponsible and manufactured false allegation”. 

The fallout between the top judges in the court has put the credibility of the judiciary at risk. Calls have also been made for  a speedy resolution of the issues, with some calling for the suspension of the three until the resolution of the matter, especially in light of the fact that Hlophe faces another complaint from 12 years ago which has yet to be finalised by the tribunal set up to look into it.  

Goliath’s complaint against Salie-Hlophe was still receiving “consideration”, the secretariat said.

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