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Business as usual for Gicheru as clock ticks

Saturday January 29 2011

Joseph Kanyi | NATION Chief Justice Evan Gicheru inspects a guard of honour before he officially opened new courtrooms in Nyeri on January 29, 2011.

Joseph Kanyi | NATION Chief Justice Evan Gicheru inspects a guard of honour before he officially opened new courtrooms in Nyeri on January 29, 2011.  

By WALTER MENYA [email protected]

Outgoing Chief Justice Evan Gicheru spent Friday in Nyeri opening new courtrooms amid the political and legal commotion that greeted the nomination of his possible successor.

President Kibaki nominated Court of Appeal Judge Alshir Visram the next Chief Justice under the new Constitution, sparking protests among the ODM side of the coalition government and civil society groups.

Mr Justice Gicheru’s last legal day in office is February 27.

Perhaps aware of the impending change and driven by the desire to leave a legacy, Justice Gicheru emphasised the need to build more modern courts to respond to current demands.

In addition, the outgoing chief judge asked the government for sufficient funding to the Judiciary to hire more staff to clear the backlog of cases.

Justice Visram’s appointment is subject to approval of the National Assembly after vetting by the departmental committee on legal and justice Affairs chaired by Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba. 

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After serving eight years as the country’s chief judge, Justice Gicheru, who rarely speaks to the media, leaves the position at a time when the country is undergoing tremendous reforms driven by the passage of a new Constitution.

Mr Gicheru was due to leave by end of this month, six months after the promulgation of the new Constitution.

Having been replaced, he will now have the option of either retiring from the Judiciary, or, subject to the process of vetting of judges, to continue to serve on the Court of Appeal.

Firm and judicious

He is remembered for his firm and judicious chairing of the 1990-91 Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance and death of the then minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Robert Ouko.

Once touted as the best legal mind in a tainted judiciary, Mr Gicheru was appointed to the position of Chief Justice on February 21, 2003 by the incoming Narc administration to replace Mr Bernard Chunga who retired to avoid facing a tribunal set up to investigate his conduct.

His first assignment was to drive what became known as the radical surgery of the Judiciary.

But the radical surgery was an exercise that never was as most of the judges who were named in the Ringera report have gone back to their jobs. At the time when he was appointed to the office of Chief Justice, the country’s Judiciary was at its lowest ebb, steeped in corruption, arbitrary delays and backlog of cases.

“Steering the Judiciary through these unprecedented reforms and thereafter keeping abreast of contemporary best practices in the administration of justice has been a great challenge,” Justice Gicheru is quoted as saying on the Judiciary’s online portal.

His admirers view him as honest and significantly independent, with a hint of intellectual arrogance on matters he feels strongly about.

This stubbornness, Nairobi lawyer Paul Mwangi wrote in 2009, has not endeared him to many people who have dealt with him, particularly because his affable manner disarms many and leads them to believe that he is malleable.

The former chief justice leaves the helm of the Judiciary having accomplished the expansion of courtrooms and construction of new ones across the country.

He campaigned for the financial independence of the Judiciary which was eventually enshrined in the new Constitution.

Critics of the former CJ say he is not a radical reformer.

Law Society of Kenya chairman Kenneth Akide remembers Justice Gicheru as a “double-faced man”. “He is a man who would tell you one thing and do exactly the opposite, a status quo person who served not the public but his masters,” Mr Akide said in an interview.

His relationship with former Justice minister Martha Karua reached breaking point when the Gichugu MP was bypassed in the appointment of new judges. She eventually resigned from government. In 2008 a wave of discontent grew among lawyers over the management of the Judiciary following the dispersal of some of their colleagues who wanted to present their grievances to Mr Justice Gicheru.

Consequently, LSK formally petitioned President Kibaki for the appointment of a tribunal to investigate the CJ following several complaints against the head of the Judiciary.

Then, LSK had claimed that the CJ had failed to uphold the independence and integrity of the Judiciary and his office by selectively and arbitrarily transferring judicial officers without reasonable notice.