We seem to live in a society where people are encouraged to play with their ages like the way children play with their toys. Most often when there are job vacancies and the qualification age is pegged, some people in their desperation to get the job will run to the court deposing to affidavits faking their ages. Sometime I ask the rationale behind the pegging of age in some jobs. There are places even law firms where jobs are made available only to those people with the First Class or Second Class Upper Degrees. If you do not fall into these categories you become Persona Non Grata. I think with the high rate at which some private universities are now producing first Class Degree holders, new yardstick may soon be introduced. The likes of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN the people’s lawyer did not make First Class before performing very well in the profession warranting the great jurist, late Hon. Justice Aniagolu to say about him that:
“No Nigerian to date has marched the indomitable energy you have put up for the growth of law in this country…”
Back to the question at hand, just last week the Delta State Judiciary was in the news that henceforth only those below the age of 50 will be appointed as judges in that state. According to the report in the Punch Newspaper, the Chief Judge of the state, Hon. Justice Marshal Umukoro said in a statement made available on his behalf by the judiciary’s Public Relation Officer that the policy had become necessary to enhance the prospects of the judges from the state for appointment into the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. While one may not completely disagree with such policy, but the reality on the ground is that this may be disadvantageous to many lawyers or even judicial officers on the lower bench in the state. A lawyer that is elevated to the bench at 50 will have 15 years to spend on the state judicial bench before retiring compulsorily at the age of 65 if he is not elevated before that age to the Court of Appeal and later to the Supreme Court where he will retire at the age of 70.
With this policy in place, the questions we need ask are: Are lawyers from the age of 50 and above are no longer eligible to be appointed as High Court judges in Delta State regardless of the fact that those applicants on their own are aware that they may not reach the appellate court? Does this mean that those judicial officers who have reached the age of 50 on the magisterial bench in the Delta State will not be elevated to the State High Court bench? To me , there should not be any hindrance to the desire of any lawyer who wants to be elevated to the bench to serve his fatherland in as much as he is competent and knowledgeable. The advantage for those people that get elevated to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court at very younger age is that their chances of becoming the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA) or Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is always very high. That itself is not usually without disadvantages to the judges from the zone or the state they come from.
For the sake of clarity and from my understanding, elevation to the appellate court is usually on zoning basis. If there is no vacancy in your zone or for your state for appellate elevation, no matter how long you stay for instance in the Court of Appeal, you may not be elevated to the Supreme Court. If you do not understand this analysis, let me give you very clear examples. In my article titled ALOMA MUKHTAR: MAKING OF FEMALE CHIEF JUSTICE, published in the Moment Newspaper of July 23, 2012 , I observed that:
“Justice Mukhtar sat at the Court of Appeal for close to eighteen (18) years from 1987 to 2005 before her elevation to the Supreme Court. Many of the male Justices that met her at the Court of Appeal and later got elevated to the Supreme Court served under her at various divisions of the court where she served as the presiding justice.”
Also in my article titled UWAIS: SALUTE TO A GREAT JURIS AT 80 published in the This Day Newspaper of 21.06.2016 I again observed that:
“Hon. Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais sat on the Supreme Court Bench for 27 years out of which he presided over the court as the Chief Justice of Nigeria for 11 years.”
As I have said earlier, the above illustrate the advantage in getting to the appellate court at very younger age which is not without price and sacrifice especially for instance in the case of Justice Mukhtar who had to stay in Court of Appeal for 18 years. Such Justice will have to vacate the seat at the Court of Appeal by retirement or elevation to the Supreme Court before another Justice from his zone or state can come in to take that seat. This same policy is equally applicable to the elevation to the Court of Appeal from the various Federal High Court, High Court of States, Shariah Court of Appeal and Customary Court of Appeal and now the National Industrial Court.
There may not be anything bad with the idea of States pegging the elevation age of their candidates to the appellate court with the prospect of enhancing their chances of getting to the Supreme Court or becoming the CJN, but those states must bear in minds the disadvantage that goes with it as illustrated above. I am of the opinion that the idea of pegging the elevation age to the High Court of the States will be of serious disadvantage to those lawyers aspiring to go to their states judicial bench as well as those Magistrates who are already in the system. When a similar idea was muted during the reign of Hon. Justice Elias as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, those who felt their interest would be affected met with the CJN as depicted by the late Hon. Justice Ephraim Akpata, JSC in his book JUSTICE FOR ALL AND BY ALL published in 1994 at page 23 that:
“Dr. Taslim Elias as the Chief Justice of Nigeria once decried the practice of appointing judges from the lower Bench. His pronouncement on the issue was given wide publicity by a section of the press. He favoured appointment from the Bar. A delegation from the Magistrates’ Association met with him on the issue. He assured the Association that good material from the lower Bench would still be appointed to the Higher Bench.”
What should be upper most in our minds this time around is how to get the best materials into our judicial system. The brilliant and sound applicants for the bench should not be sacrificed at the expense of age pegging for elevation to the High Court bench. The practice in those days when good lawyers who were not from a particular state were elevated to the bench of that state seems to have gone out of fashion. What is now in vogue is that you can hardly get elevated to the bench of the state where you practice if you are not from that state. And ironically again if you practice outside your home state and you eventually apply to be elevated to your home state bench, some may argue against you that you have not been practicing in your state.
In 1980, the then Governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Lateef Kayode sworn in late Hon. Justice Morenike Onalaja as a judge of Lagos State High Court. Justice Onalaja was from Ogun State and was practicing law in Ibadan before his elevation. In 1985, Hon. Justice Niki Tobi from the then Bendel State (now Delta State) was sworn in as a Judge of the Rivers State High Court. Hon. Justice Tobi before then was a lecturer and Professor of Law at University of Maiduguri. It was the brilliance manifested by these people that warranted their elevation to the bench outside their home states. Their contributions to the development of law in Nigeria remain indelible till date. To the best of my knowledge, except Lagos State, I do not know of any other state where this kind of thing is still being done.