THE appointment of Justice Don Sawong back to the National and Supreme Court bench must have been difficult for the appointing authority, the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, for one reason alone: because he just ran for the national elections.
Although appointed on Sept 15, Justice Sawong took his oath of office at the Government House last Wednesday.
The appointment does make one a little squeamish because of what the public might see in the future decisions of his honour rather than whether Justice Sawong is the right choice.
The good justice resigned to contest the last elections in the Kabwum Open seat in Morobe. He lost the elections to incumbent Bob Dadae.
He is, of course, the right choice. He brings back to the bench 10 years of experience which we welcome at a time our court rooms are chockablock with cases which need experienced judges to deal with speedily.
Since his appointment in 1995, Justice Sawong has been a work-horse and we are certain he will have lost none of that touch. Indeed, we suspect that his jumping into the scalding fires of electoral politics might have sharpened the edges of his judicial blade somewhat.
Our uneasiness comes from the very fact of his having jumped into that particular fire. Regardless of the fact that nothing of that experience will rub off in the court rooms he is rejoining – he is too professional for that – the public perception of bias will not go away too quickly, if ever.
One day he will make a perfectly good judgment – based on the strength of evidence before him and the law – and he will still be accused of bias, of being partisan and politically aligned because of this one experience in the mountains of Kabwum. His short dalliance with politics will remain on his record and will rear its ugly head time and again.
Each time this happens, it will not only be Justice Sawong whose reputation is impacted negatively in the public mind but a little of the mud will stick on the judiciary. Whether such a hypothetical event arises or not in future, the more important and immediate consideration stems from the important role that the judiciary plays in the bigger picture of Government.
The judiciary headed by the Chief Justice comprises the third arm of Government, after the executive, which is the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister, and the legislature which is Parliament headed by the Speaker. Each are theoretically meant to operate independently to keep a check so that the other does not exceed its powers.
In practice, Cabinet and Parliament are irretrievably compromised in Papua New Guinea basically because they comprise elected representatives who serve in both the executive role and the legislature.
The PNG judiciary, as the non-elected arm of Government, has remained true to the concept of an independent judiciary and it is this that is much valued and trumpeted when people talk about PNG having a very strong and independent judiciary.
Any suggestion that a judge has immersed himself in politics crosses that fine line in the minds of the public, certainly not a major blemish to warrant a public outcry but it can start a slow erosion process that, given time, can weather away the towering pillar of credibility and public trust in the institution of the judiciary that has taken ages to construct.
Members of the judiciary occupy that sacrosanct position in society where their very jobs are to be judges of men’s character and actions. They themselves must, therefore, rise above any question in their private and public conduct.
Justice Sawong has done absolutely nothing wrong. Neither has the appointing authority, the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. It is the perception in the minds of people that an invisible no-go zone has been crossed that causes the unease.
That said, Justice Sawong is back and the judiciary needs experienced hands on deck right now. We are certain the Chief Justice would see good sense in using him in cases which might not be politically sensitive for the time being. We are equally certain these matters have been discussed exhaustively between the Chief Justice and others who might have been involved in the appointment before the final decision was made.
We raise the matter in this space because it is a matter of public interest and we do so in good faith and mindful of the high esteem in which the judiciary of PNG is held in the public mind and with all due respect to Justice Sawong.