Article 171 of the Constitution of Kenya establishes the Judicial Service Commission [“the JSC”]. The JSC is composed of the Chief Justice, a judge of the Supreme Court (elected by the judges of the Supreme Court), a judge of the Court of Appeal (elected by the Court of Appeal), a High Court judge and a magistrate (one woman and one man, elected by the association of judges and magistrates), the Attorney-General, two advocates (one woman and one man, elected by the members of the regulatory body of advocates), a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, and two members of the public (one woman and one man, nominated by the President and confirmed by the National Assembly). As we can see the JSC’s composition includes a range of stakeholders: the judiciary, the bar, the executive (through the A-G), and the legislature (the confirmatory body for the public members).
Judicial appointments and ancillary issues are further regulated by the Judicial Service Act. Section 15(2) of the JSC Act states that where one of the nominating bodies under Article 171 has chosen its nominee, it shall submit the name to the President, and the President, within three days of the receipt of the name, shall appoint the nominee as a member of the JSC. Controversy arose in 2018, when a judge of the Court of Appeal was elected by his peers to be the CoA’s representative in the JSC. However, instead of “appointing” the judge in accordance with Section 15(2) of the JSC Act, the President forwarded his name to the National Assembly for consideration and vetting. The President invoked Article 250(2)(b) of the Constitution, which provides that members of constitutional commissions (of which the JSC is one) would – inter alia – have to be approved by the National Assembly.
The President’s actions were challenged before the High Court. The case was carried to the Court of Appeal, and ultimately to the Supreme Court, which delivered its judgment on 31 March 2023. Over a dissent by Justice Njoki Ndungu, a majority of the Supreme Court held, first, that in accordance with Article 171, the National Assembly had no role to play in the vetting of the elected nominees; and secondly, that insofar as Section 15(2) of the JSC Act granted authority to the President to “appoint” these elected nominees, it was ultra vires Article 171, and void. The majority based its reasoning on the following grounds: first, that while Article 250 made provisions in general for a group “Chapter Fifteen Commissions”, Article 248 made clear that these provisions applied to Commissions “except to the extent that this Constitution provides otherwise.” (paragraph 56) Article 171 – a self-executing provision for JSC appointments – was an instance where the “Constitution provides otherwise.” (paragraph 57) Secondly, that Article 171 itself envisaged different appointment procedures for different types of nominees. When it came to the public member nominees, for example, Article 171 explicitly envisaged a vetting role for the National Assembly. Consequently, where it did not do so – e.g., for the judicial nominees – it was clear that the Constitution did not intend for the National Assembly to play a role. (paragraph 65) And thirdly – and for largely the same reasons – that Article 171 clearly precluded interpolating the President into the process, even if his role was meant to be largely ceremonial (as the Respondents argued).
While the Majority’s reasoning and conclusion rested upon a close reading of the constitutional provisions and of the JSC Act, there are two deeper, unarticulated points that emerge from the judgment, and which are worth thinking about.
The first is the majority’s insistence that the Constitution could not be read to grant to the President (read: the Executive) any more powers than which were expressly set out in the constitutional text. Indeed, an argument that the President’s power flowed from Article 250 read with Article 132(4) of the Constitution – the latter of which authorises the President to “perform any other executive function provided for in this Constitution” – was explicitly rejected by the Majority (paragraph 52). Now, when you think about it, there are two ways in which a Constitution can be interpreted when it comes to the question of power enjoyed by the political executive. The first is to say that the executive power to do “X” exists and is valid unless expressly prohibited by the Constitution. The second is to say that there is no executive power to do X unless expressly authorised for by the Constitution. The question turns upon the normative baseline of the Constitution: as the old chestnut goes, is everything permitted unless prohibited, or is everything prohibited unless permitted (except that here it applies to the executive, and not to individuals).
The majority’s answer is the latter. In some ways, this tracks the Supreme Court’s holding (exactly on this day, one year ago!) in the BBI case, on the question of the President’s power to initiate a “popular initiative” to amend the Constitution. In that case, as well, the majority read a constitutional silence against the power of the President to do “X”, and reasoned that any exercise of executive power would have to be traced back to an enabling constitutional provision. And both in the BBI case as well as in today’s judgment, the underlying sub-text is the lessons of history relating to the imperial Presidency, lessons that tell us that concentration or accretion of power in the Executive – which judicial interpretation can either enable or hinder – often leads to the erosion of democracy.
In fact, this overarching theme leads us to the second point, which is the majority’s application of the principle to the specific case of the JSC. Here, the majority drew upon the lessons of constitutional history to argue that the JSC was always meant to be independent (paragraph 84 – 88), and especially, independent of executive interference (except where an executive role is, of course, expressly provided for). Making the President the “appointing authority” was just such an example of executive interference, especially given that Article 250 was explicit in contexts where the President was the appointing authority for Commissions (paragraph 89). Thus, the majority held that “we believe and hold the firm view that the President can only exercise the functions, whether formal or ceremonial, donated to him by the Constitution. The President has no ceremonial role in the appointment of elected and nominated commissioners of the JSC.” (paragraph 91)
Indeed, the majority went further and noted that while under the old Constitution, the President would issue a gazette notification to signify an appointment, in this case, even that power was not available: it was the role of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to do so (paragraph 98). Thus, the majority held that “to give the President power to appoint or even to “appoint” by mere gazettement of names is to forget our history and the mischief Article 171 was intended to cure. (paragraph 100)
Now, the majority’s textual analysis, and its argument that there should be no “implied” executive power unless expressly provided, are beyond cavil. However, there is a slight slippage in the opinion insofar as the majority flags the importance of the independence of the JSC, and the need to protect it from “manipulation” by the executive, but does not elaborate upon how, if the President’s role is purely ceremonial, or gazette-esque, such manipulation is possible. Indeed, Section 15(2) – as it stood – already provided safeguards against the most common form of abuse by an appointing authority – the pocket veto – by stipulating a three-day time limit. Indeed, this point was seized upon by Justice Njoki Ndungu in her dissent, where she went into the question of JSC independence in some detail.
If one were to hazard a guess, one might say that even though Section 15(2) of the JSC Act purports to exclude pocket vetoes, the very interpolation of the President lowers the costs of executive manipulation. One may imagine situations where notwithstanding the three-day period, the President does not confirm an appointment, and makes an argument that while the three-day period envisages executive vetting by virtue of its very existence, there has not been enough time to do so. Protracted litigation would then ensue, and while the President may ultimately lose, the point is not so much about the outcome of the case, as it is that a provision such as section 15(2) enables the possibility of constitutional hardball by the executive, and in striking it down, the majority sought to anticipate and forestall any such hardball (indeed, on this point, it is interesting to note that Justice Njoki Ndungu would have struck down the three-day limit altogether, thus enabling indefinite pocket vetoes!). Indeed, in this context, Justice Njoji Ndungu’s dissent is interesting, because here one sees, clearly spelt out, the opposite interpretive philosophy: that is, executive power should be given full reign unless explicitly contained (see e.g. para 126). As in the BBI case, Justice Njoki Ndungu’s opinion is also based on constitutional history – but on a very different reading of constitutional history. It is perhaps for historians to tell us who gets it right!
A final point, by way of clarification. On the question of the independence of the JSC, the dissent criticised the majority for conflating the independence of the JSC with the independence of the judiciary, noting that, as a constitutional commission, the JSC’s status was not that of the judiciary. To an extent, this was enabled by the majority referring, in paragraph 84, to “the independence of the judiciary and by extension the JSC.” It is important to note, however, that technical criticism aside, the majority’s focus on independence was correct: the requirement of JSC independence flows from its position as a fourth branch, or guarantor institution, which provides the infrastructure that enables the effective realisation of rights (in this case, the rule of law, by securing the independence of the judiciary). The majority’s use of the phrase “by extension”, therefore, is best understood not in the narrow sense that Justice Njoki Ndungu understood it – as equivalent to the independence of the judiciary – but in a broader sense, where commissions such as the JSC create the framework within which rights are enabled.
We can therefore see that two issues of constitutional philosophy underlie this judgment: first, that the role of the Constitution is to limit executive aggrandisement (and therefore, wherever possible, that the Constitution must be interpreted to advance that goal); and secondly, the independence of fourth branch institutions must be protected not only from visible and immediate threats, but from indirect erosion, or – perhaps more accurately – a legal environment that enables erosion. These two ideas constitute the heart of the majority opinion, and provide the underlying justifications for its reading of the constitutional text and structure.