From the Supreme Court, a Self-serving Request

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Supreme Court’s memorandum to the Senate Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution seeking to increase the retirement age of justices from 70 to 75 years is coming under attack by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami and others, who feel that there are more important things that need attention in the judiciary than mundane issues. Davidson Iriekpen reports

A former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, last week, came down hard on the memorandum sent to the Senate Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution, seeking to increase the retirement age of justices of the Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years.

Penultimate week, the Deputy Senate President and Chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, had revealed that the Supreme Court justices were pushing for their retirement age to be increased from 70 to 75 years.
According to him, there was also another memo calling for increase in the retirement age of judges of the states, including the FCT and the Federal High Courts from 65 to 70 years.

At present, Supreme Court and Court of Appeal Justices retire at 70 years while state High Court and Federal High Court judges, including judges of the FCT High Courts, retire at age 65. Omo-Agege said the apex court’s proposal and that of the High Court judges would be treated by the committee and brought before the Senate for consideration as two bills by March 2021.

Among others, he said: “To put you under further pressure, we have also decided to extricate one or two issues dealing with the judiciary, most importantly, the one dealing with the retirement age for judges of the states, including the FCT and the federal high courts to bring in parity with the 70 years retirement age of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

“There is also the issue of the clamour by the Supreme Court to also move from 70 to 75 years. I am sure you are all aware that it is up to our colleagues in both chambers and of course, the State Houses of Assembly to decide whether or not we should move ahead with both.”

But the proposal has been heavily criticised by many Nigerians, who feel that instead of the judges to harp on absolute independence of the judiciary, they were making mundane requests that would not do the country any good.

For instance, while justices of the Supreme Court of the United States serve for life, in other jurisdictions such as Germany, United Kingdom and Canada, where life expectancy is high, they retire at 68, 70 and 75 respectively. Many have argued that in these countries, even at these ages, they are still of sound minds unlike in Nigeria.

This is why many analysts and observers feel that it would be wrong for the National Assembly to increase their retirement age. They argued that when the judiciary is independent, not only would the emoluments of judges be significantly improved, many other conditions of service would be well taken care of.

Those who spoke to THISDAY wondered why the judges were afraid of retirement? They also wondered if the soundness of their minds would remain intact at 75, questioning the depreciation of productivity value, level of their physical fitness and their mental fitness for the delicate national assignment?

For these reasons, they enjoined members of the National Assembly to concentrate their energies on issues like independence of the judiciary, devolution of powers, restructuring, state police and others that are urgently needed to move the country forward. Justice Salami, while reacting, advised the Senate to ignore it, saying some of the judges were not healthy and strong enough as many of them regularly travel abroad for treatment. He also claimed that some of them forget easily in addition to memory challenges.

The former PCA added that some of the judges do not know their actual age and have been using declaration of age affidavit, noting that the nation could fill the vacancies from a pool of qualified, experienced and healthier professionals.

He said: “It’s understood that it’s being contemplated to raise the tenure of the Supreme Court justices and possibly those of the Court of Appeal to 75 years within the next couple of weeks, to be precise, before the end of March. The profession is ominously silent over it.
“I could remember that the same issue was brought up by the Senate during my screening for the President of the Court of Appeal, which was persuaded by my reasoning. I contended that very few of us had birth certificates. Invariably we rely on declaration of age, which is generally inflated, because they are inferred from incidences or occurrences the happening of which we were not sure of.”

According to him, it is dangerous and unproductive for the nation to increase the age of judges it is unsure of, adding that to be increasing age, which is predicated on unsure parameters could be dangerous merely, because their counterparts elsewhere retire at about that age without taking into account the faulty starting point.

“Many of them are not healthy. They regularly travel abroad for treatment, and some of them forget easily in addition to memory challenges. In the circumstances, some of the justices would only be there as passengers to fulfill statutory conditions without ability to make meaningful contribution. This is a condition that could easily be exploited by dishonest members of the court.

“It’s my humble opinion that the present retirement age is adequate for any sincere hardworking member of the court. It’s not only consuming but also tasking emotionally, physically and mentally. There is a pool of qualified, experienced and healthier professionals from which vacancies created by their respective retirements can be filled,” he said.
Salami said even at 70 years, some of the judges in the apex court were no longer strong as they used to be, adding that what should be paramount to the nation now was the output of the judges at old age.

He said: “We should have in mind their output at old age. The interest of the nation and not preference of the justices should be paramount on the minds of the senators. The employer and not the labourer, determines the duration of the contract. It’s the people who make a constitution for themselves and not an institution thereof.”

Supporting Salami’s views, a lawyer, Abdulrasheed Ibrahim, did not see the need for the new retirement age.
“On my part, I do not see the need for such increase in the retirement age. If our judges and justices are unanimous on this demand, it means they are all comfortable with what is happening in the system, including deprivation of the independence of judiciary, poor facilities and remuneration and the unnecessary workload they are being shouldered with.

“It was the politicians that insisted the other time that they must be allowed to argue their appeal on governorship election cases up to the Supreme Court, which further increased the workload of the Supreme Court Jurists.
“The appeal on such cases used to terminate at the Court of Appeal. I am of the view that the Supreme Court Justices in particular must be seriously concerned, and be pushing for the constitutional review that will checkmate the nature of the appeal cases that go to the Supreme Court as observed by some justices of the court.

“There are appeal cases that should not have business going to the apex court but should terminate at the Court of Appeal. Another thing again is that we operate a system that encourages people to falsify their ages unnecessarily.
“It is not surprising that some judges have been sanctioned in recent time for falsifying their ages, when going into the system. It is not the number years that a judge put into the judicial service that matters but the positive impact and contributions made. It is for this reasons that I concur with Hon. Justice Ayo Salami and I have nothing more to add,” he stated.

Also faulting the proposal, a public affairs analyst, Alex Enemanna said, “Why is the muscled and emasculated judiciary not harping on independence rather they concentrate on elongation of retirement age? Are they comfortable with the current system, where they beg cap-in-hand, wholly at the mercy of the executive for allocation in a way that stifles the principle of independence of the arms of government? These are questions begging for answers.

“Left to fly, new retirement age for judges will serve as disincentive for younger benchers, who aspire to reach the top of their professional career. With one representation from each state, it implies that there will not be any replacement until a sitting judge clocks 75 or 70 as the case may be. Lest I forget, why are we so sure that the soundness of the minds of the judges will remain intact while we over-labour them at an old age? Are they immune from depreciation of productivity value, as they grow higher in age?

“What is the level of their physical fitness that we must bank on their mental fitness for such a delicate national assignment at the age of 75 and 70, respectively? Aside this, this self-serving mission has the tendency to further generate constitutional crisis than we may envisage. What happens if civil servants, police officers, the military and para-military agencies and the rest begin to ask for a new retirement age? Can we shoulder the pressure?

“The national and state legislatures must discard such bill to the bin, where it rightly belongs. They should commit their energy to pushing agenda that will have a wide spread and minister to the critical needs of our people particularly, security, employment and national unity. These should occupy the front burner in the upcoming Constitution Review exercise. Anything short of this will amount to effort in futility,” he concurred.