Lessons on Law from West Africa

Copyright 2015 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a guest column on April 13, 2015
in the Austin American-Statesman)

    Life is a continuing lesson of learning. Sometimes, we must go outside our own backyard to continue to learn. For me, it was a trip to West Africa last summer that enriched my understanding of other cultures and my perspective on American courts.

    Our team, sponsored by the State Department, included a U. S. federal judge and two Canadian colleagues. The program included 38 judges, including 12 women, from the countries of Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. Their judicial systems arose from the English common law, and, like their British counterparts, judges and lawyers wear robes and white wigs in the courtroom.

    It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our program's theme was broad--the Role of the Judge in a Democratic Society. I met and interacted with fine jurists spiritedly devoted to their work with genuine respect for the rule of law. Their questions and comments showed their knowledge of the law and a deep understanding of human nature.

    My main focus dealt with judicial independence. This is the concept that judges should be kept separate from other branches of government and shouldn't be subject to influence from private or special interest groups. I was eager to find out how our African brethren's sense of this issue compared to how it is understood in the United States. I wasn't disappointed.

    During our lunch periods, I sat only with participants so I could interact with them one-on-one. Although I asked questions to explore their thoughts of their own courts, my aim was politics generally and particularly in their own jurisdictions.

    When I queried them about their politics or ideologies, they spoke cautiously. They felt it was a threat to judicial independence for judges to belong to a political party while in office, believing that doing so would compromise the public and bar's perception of their integrity and impartiality.

    They were well acquainted with our own methods of judicial appointment and election, but I sensed their strong views weren't meant as criticisms of the way we do things. Still, I couldn't help thinking that many of my fellow judges would blush in embarrassment to hear these jurists speak with such pride of their attempts to safeguard their judicial independence. I say this because partisan politics plays a big part not only in getting our own judges elected or appointed but also because many of our judges play a role not only in their own selections but in non-judicial elections.

    As one judge from Liberia and I discussed court and case management, he told a story--if you imagine you're an elephant and step on a mouse, and the mouse doesn't die, then you're not really an elephant. Similarly, if judges possess a gavel and, in managing their courtrooms, fail to use it effectively to administer justice, then they truly aren't judges. I couldn't help thinking that his story could well apply to the political courage a judge must possess to administer justice.

    I spoke with three Ghanaian judges. They too spoke reservedly of their own politics. One of them, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Ghana, when I asked whether his ideology leaned toward one major party, added some humor. He spoke of a statement attributed to Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--those who chose to be in the middle of the road are soon going to be run over.

    In Ghana, he explained, although the law is nebulous whether judges are permitted to belong to a political party, most judges choose not to. Some won't admit that they do or that they lean toward one of the two major parties. But all three agreed with other groups--that belonging to a party undermined their judicial independence. I should note that I don't know of any court system in the U. S. where such thinking is the rule. Instead, partisan politics plays very much a part in the judiciary.

    I benefitted greatly from getting to know my brethren outside of the legal communities I've known back in the U. S., and I ended the week with a deep respect for them. During their dialogues, they referred to their colleagues as their brothers or sisters, and, despite disagreements, viewed each other with respect. Having had the honor of sharing time with them, I'm proud as well to call them my brothers and sisters.