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Unterhalter’s bid for Concourt thwarted again

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It was a case of action replay for esteemed Judge David Unterhalter this week at the re-run of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Constitutional Court judge interviews. The internationally renowned lawyer was yet again grilled about his brief charitable association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) during the pandemic.

Never mind his years of pro bono work, mentorship, and dedication to academia, as well as his global expertise gleaned from serving on the World Trade Organisation’s Appellate Body, it appeared to many commentators that his gender, race, and possibly even his faith stood firmly in his way of being included on a shortlist for possible appointments to the apex court.

He was again excluded from the latest JSC shortlist for two vacancies.

The JSC was forced to re-run its highly controversial and heavily politicised April 2021 Constitutional Court interview process after the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) challenged its lawfulness in the High Court.

Casac accused several members of the JSC, including Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, of “political grandstanding”, and argued that “party political considerations and political agendas should play no role in the JSC’s decisions and processes”.

During the first round of interviews, Unterhalter was interrogated about his association with the SAJBD after his candidacy was vehemently opposed by the South African Boycott Divestment Sanctions Coalition and the Black Lawyers Association.

Unterhalter briefly assisted the SAJBD with the upliftment and welfare of the Jewish and broader community during the direst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. He resigned from the SAJBD because he recognised that it sometimes litigates in the Constitutional Court which might cause conflicts.

The issue was raised yet again this week. JSC commissioner Advocate Thandazani Griffiths Madonsela, one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s candidates on the JSC, rehashed the now stale objections to his candidacy and persistently probed him about his time at the Board.

The Board criticised the JSC interview process describing it as “Groundhog Day for the Jewish community”.

“Once again, a Jewish candidate for the Constitutional Court, Judge Unterhalter, was targeted for his association with the democratically elected representative body of the Jewish community,” it said in a statement, adding “Once again, bias was evident.”

The Board maintained, “In a series of four questions, Commissioner Madonsela’s political agenda was distinctly evident, particularly his comment, ‘It seems to me that the fundamental premise of the objection is the assertion that the SAJBD is a body that is pro-Zionist and that is in fact bullying all their people and organisations who are objecting to the Israeli establishment in the Palestine region’.”

Unterhalter denied this, saying, “Members of the Jewish community in this country, as in many other countries, hold a very wide variety of views about Zionism and the state of Israel. That’s why people who are Zionists subscribe to organisations that bear that name and seek to pursue that particular political agenda.

“The Jewish Board of Deputies is a body that existed long before the state of Israel was ever created, and has its roots in the 19th century in this country, where it’s simply founded to look after the interests of a particular community, in this instance the Jewish community, and largely to take care of its welfare as many community organisations representing many different parts of our society do,” said the esteemed judge.

Unterhalter said that it was on this premise that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were “peculiarly large demands” placed on the welfare not just of the Jewish community but also in respect of its charitable work with other communities, he accepted a position on the Board thinking that it could be of some service to the community and the work it did.

The SAJBD said the depiction of the Board as a “bullying” organisation was “a baseless and highly offensive smear against an organisation whose mandate is to protect South African Jews’ civil rights”.

“If anyone should be accused of bullying, it’s Commissioner Madonsela, whose factually inaccurate, prejudicial, and irresponsible assertions have no place in an interview to assess judicial competence. The SAJBD objects strenuously to this vile characterisation of our organisation.”

It said it found it “indefensible” that a person’s association with a body that protects Jews’ human rights in South Africa could preclude them from public office.

Advocate Mark Oppenheimer said the question from Madonsela about Unterhalter’s affiliation with the SAJBD “showed an extreme prejudice against the Jewish community”.

“It tries to insinuate strongly that Zionism is an unconstitutional project, and that it’s a sinister belief system and anything even adjacent to it taints one so thoroughly, that one cannot sit as a judge on the Constitutional Court. I think that borders on a blood libel, and the question should have been interrupted by the chair.

“It’s clear that that series of questions which were there during the first series of interviews were inappropriate, and it’s also clear from the Judicial Services Act that judges have every right to participate in charitable work which Judge Unterhalter was doing when he was at the SAJBD.”

Oppenheimer said many of the other questions faced by Unterhalter were pertinent, addressing his career.

“Anyone watching the interviews would be awed at the breadth of the work that he has done,” he said.

Casac’s Lawson Naidoo told News24 that it was crucial that the JSC explained its reasons for excluding Unterhalter and Advocate Alan Dodson.

There are currently no white judges on the Bench.

Their exclusion from the shortlist has raised eyebrows in the legal fraternity over whether the JSC is taking seriously its responsibilities in terms of Section 174(2) of the Constitution, which says that the judiciary must broadly reflect the demographics of South Africa in terms of race and gender.

Said Oppenheimer, “There’s an impression that has been created by the JSC that your race, gender, and possibly your faith can be factors which can permanently exclude you from the Court. It would be a pity to exclude eligible Jews from the apex court, given the fact that they have played such an important role, which should not be forgotten.”

Unterhalter and Dodson, both internationally renowned legal minds, were pressed about their race and gender.

After a full day of interviews and deliberations, the JSC reaffirmed its April 2021 shortlist, producing exactly the same list as it had done before.

The list of candidates on the shortlist include Constitutional Court Justice Rammaka Mathopo, former Free State Judge President Mahube Molemela, and High Court Judges Jody Kollapen, Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane, and Bashier Vally. Their names will be forwarded to President Ramaphosa to select two to fill vacancies.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. irvine

    Oct 8, 2021 at 5:15 am

    didn’t we see this happening in Germany in the 1930’s?

  2. Leon Capon

    Oct 11, 2021 at 5:08 pm

    The JSC is more racist that the racists.

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