A retired justice of the Supreme Court, William Atuguba, has stated that former President John Dramani Mahama has every right to address the growing public perception of political influence in the judiciary, but was wrong in advocating a fair balance of appointments on the bench along partisan lines.

In September this year, the 2024 Presidential Candidate of the National Democratic Congress stirred up a hornet’s nest when he openly criticised the judiciary under the administration of the New Patriotic Party, alleging that the courts had been packed with NPP-inclined judges to influence decisions in their favour.

As a result, Mr Mahama, who was addressing a conference of NDC lawyers, advised them to prepare themselves to take up positions on the bench to balance out its composition.

Speaking on JoyNews’ Upfront on a wide range of issues about the judiciary and justice delivery in Ghana, the revered retired justice, William Atuguba, said Mr Mahama only repeated growing public perception about the judiciary.

Asked whether Mr Mahama’s comments were a fair assessment of the judiciary, the retired justice, William Atuguba responded in the affirmative, saying, “I think in a broad sense, yes. “The courts belong to the public and that thing should never be lost sight of. Everything in the state belongs to the people. Every other person in any position is a trustee for the people, and that’s why court proceedings are held in public for the public to follow the proceedings to assess things for themselves to see how justice is administered, whether it’s fair or not.”

According to the legal luminary, the public perception and concerns about the sanctity of the judiciary must not be taken for granted.

“There’s a big public outcry about the nature of the Supreme Court as it stands. They feel that it is politically tilted to the NPP.  You can see a lot of those sentiments expressed on social media, to the extent that they call them unanimous FC. When the public loses confidence or they start complaining, you don’t just push it aside because when nothing is happening they won’t do that “he argued.

“Why is it that they [The public] did not have that impression of raising those flags earlier on?” he quizzed.

He added “The National Security Minister even came out to talk about this matter”, stating further that, “Public perception in your private estimation may be right or wrong but it has effects all the same. So when it has an effect you try to diffuse that effect. These sentiments don’t arise out of a vacuum, and to win the public confidence, they must feel that the judgements are sound and not politically jaundiced. So if there’s a big outcry like this, something has to be done about it.

The highly respected legal brain condemned the practice in Ghana where wrongs are swept under the carpet, making reference to public concerns about judicial corruption until investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas exposed judges through his work.

The bad thing about this country is that, something bad is happening, but for political reasons, they would like to push it under the carpet. They did it when the cry about corruption was rising and rising. But what happened when Anas went in? My cousin and two or three other judges when they raised it, the courts banned them. Shortly after that what happened?” He asked angrily.

That is why it doesn’t pay to gamble with the truth because it will surface and can cause damage. So, on the whole that perception is there. I didn’t cause it, but it’s there. And so Mahama can talk about it. The only point where I will disagree with him is that, he should have gone further to say that, you the NDC lawyers who are experienced and independent-minded, you should get ready. So, that they come and will not give the same impression. But if it is just politically balancing the equation then that is not helpful. Then why don’t you leave this? Is it just because you also want an opportunity to do the same thing? That doesn’t advance anything” he noted.

Mistrust in judiciary a constitutional problem; Judicial Council composition must change

The former justice of the Supreme Court also attributed the increasing decline of the public’s trust in the judiciary to a constitutional problem.

He said the problem stems from the appointment process – explaining that the Judicial Council, charged with the responsibility to appoint judges, has presidential nominees join in their deliberations.

This, he contended, could raise questions about the autonomy of the judiciary and whether political influence plays a role in judicial appointments.

“You want the judiciary to be independent, the Constitution states so. Nonetheless, on the Judicial Council, which recommends Justices to be appointed, you have the Attorney General and four nominees of the president sitting there taking part in the proceedings as to who should be presented for appointment to the Supreme Court.”

 “Where is the independence of the judiciary? We have the executive so strongly present there?” Justice Atuguba quizzed.

About Justice William Atuguba

William Atuguba was a prosecutor, state attorney, and Ghana’s former Justice of the Supreme Court. He was enrolled as a magistrate on 3 October 1974 and appointed by former president Rawlings in 1995.

From May 25, 2016, till June 25, 2016, the then Chief Justice, Justice Georgina Theodora Woode was outside the country on official duties and so William Atuguba was made the acting Chief Justice.

He also acted as Chief Justice from February 2017 prior to the retirement of Georgina Theodora Wood on 8 June 2017 until 19 June 2017 when Sophia Akuffo was sworn in by President Akufo-Addo as the new Chief Justice.

William Atuguba is one of the longest-serving members of the Supreme court of Ghana being a judge for 44 years. He served as a Supreme Court Judge for 23 years: from 1995 to 2018.

He was for a period, the most senior judge in the Supreme Court.