CJ Martha Koome stamps her foot down, fires warning shot at Parliament

Chief Justice Martha Koome. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

In what points to a looming showdown, Chief Justice Martha Koome fired a warning shot to Parliament yesterday, and by extension the Executive arm which controls the two chambers.

In the salvo delivered on the day Chief Registrar of Judiciary Anne Amadi was to appear before a House committee, Koome put the two houses of Parliament on notice that it will no longer be business as usual as far as parliamentary summonses are concerned.

She accused MPs of pursuing ‘individual interests’ and of ‘harassing’ judicial officers in the name of undertaking their oversight role.

A hard hitting letter to Parliament, seen by The Standard, froze any further appearances by judicial officers until the ‘elephant in the room’ is addressed by the two Speakers, Justin Muturi (National Assembly) and his Ken Lusaka (Senate).

CJ Koome’s predecessor, Dr Willy Mutunga, had previously led top judicial office holders in snubbing MPs, leading to an ugly confrontation in the months leading to his retirement. 

“In the recent past, we have had frequent and multiple summons from Parliament, overlapping and duplicating summons from different committees of the same House, and also between the two Houses to discuss the same issues. Part of it borders on harassment,” said Koome in the letter dated July 7, 2021.

She said that there were demonstrable instances of inquiries that disrespected the constitutional boundaries governing the relationship between the institutions.

Koome cited instances where Amadi and other senior judicial officers have been summoned to multiple committees to respond to various issues.

She said that through a letter dated June 30, PAC summoned the Chief Registrar to appear before it on July 6. In response, the Registrar appeared but the sitting was adjourned after the committee insisted that the chairperson and at least two other members of JSC’s Human Resource Management Committee appear.

“The committee has again summoned the HR Committee of the JSC to appear before it on July 12, 2021, for a follow-up meeting discussion on the position of the Director of Finance, a matter that is squarely the responsibility of the Judicial Service Commission,” said Koome.

She cited other summonses including one on May 10, 2021, by the Senate standing committee on Justice, Legal Affairs and Human Rights. The committee had summoned the Chief Registrar to discuss the state of the Judiciary and Administration of Justice annual reports for the financial year 2018/2019 and 2019/2020.

The committee also questioned the registrar on the recruitment of the 40 nominees who were awaiting appointment by President Uhuru Kenyatta, having been recommended by the JSC.

The Senate further summoned Amadi to appear on the Senate standing committee on National Cohesion, Equal Opportunity and Regional Integration on July 8 over principles of equity, gender diversity and inclusiveness of marginalised groups in the Judiciary.

“As you can see from these summonses, the Chief Registrar is expected to appear before three different committees of the National Assembly and the Senate on July 8, 2021. These summonses and the subject matters proposed for discussion pose a challenge to the Judiciary and the JSC, and hence the need to clarify our understanding of the boundaries of parliamentary oversight,” said Koome.

She described the tendency by Parliament as worrying and a threat to the “stable relationship” between the two arms of government as well as the operations of the Judiciary.

“It is our humble view that parliamentary oversight must be performed strictly within the four corners of the law, and, equally importantly, in a manner that permits the various public institutions to perform their duties.

She cited a case between the National Assembly and the JSC in 2013, where the court held that “the objectives of the oversight role of Parliament is to be exercised not for the benefit of particular individuals but in pursuit of the improved service delivery…”

The letter by Koome is likely to mark the beginning of a frosty relationship between the two arms of government.

But the letter addressed to the two speakers and tabled before the National Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC) immediately triggered an uproar among its membership led by chair Opiyo Wandayi (Ugunja), who faulted the CJ’s action.

Wandayi said they would not tolerate any attempts by state organs to shield their officers from answering questions on taxpayers’ money.

“It is our view that all state organs and agencies that are financed from the public coffers must be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny and oversight,” said Wandayi.

He added, “PAC deals squarely with issues raised by the Auditor-General and expects every accounting officer to respond to them. We don’t engage in a fishing expedition.”

Koome didn’t mince her words in the letter when she accused the lawmakers of turning the committees into avenues of attempting to micromanage and infringe on the independence of the Judiciary.

During her approval, MPs appealed to her to strike a working balance with the august House, while accusing past CJs of having a condescending attitude towards them.

Soon after she was approved and firmly settled in office, President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed a large part of the 41 judges that had been recommended to him by JSC years ago.

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