What Makes a Good Judge?

by Sam Kargbo

Having queried the criticisms that usually trail the appointment of judges and justices to trial and appellate courts – in the piece titled “Appointment to the Bench – Much Ado about Nothing”, it is necessary to lend our thoughts on the qualities of a good judge or justice.

It was Francis Bacon, the English Lawyer, Philosopher, Statesman and father of the scientific method or empiricism, who said that “Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more relevant than plausible, and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue.” Long before Bacon and, indeed, in every era of humanity, the question of what qualifies one to be a good judge has been discussed, debated and interrogated, but never resolved. The question may never be given a universal answer because, besides their cultural and philosophical contexts, the expected qualities and virtues of a judge have always been inferences drawn from the duties and roles of the judge in the justice system. Under the adversarial system practiced by Nigeria and other common law countries, judges are usually lawyers with the legal ability and capacity to interpret laws and apply legal principles to factual situations fashioned and demonstrated before them by litigants. Such judges excel and gain respect and traction within the legal community with the ability to grasp the cases and issues presented by litigants, sound knowledge of the law and courtroom criminal and civil procedures, sound legal reasoning, brilliant communication skills, humour, good listening skills, patience, courage to set aside personal prejudices, personal and partisan influences, integrity, a good balance of courtesy, humility, open-mindedness, good temperament, respect with confidence and firmness, good case management and, of course, good mental and physical health.

Public expectations are, in the main, influenced by the individual’s cultural sense of justice, and often go beyond such sterling qualities as the ones enumerated above. For example, to the Christian, the metaphor of the judge as the last hope of the common man is related to the role of God as the ultimate judge of all, who will judge sinners with condemnation and sentence to hellfire, and reward believers with the Rapture, whereby they will be identified, separated from sinners and taken to heaven to live an eternal life of glory.

The Biblical judge was also more than a mere settler of disputes. Judges in the Bible were leaders and protectors of their people. Samuel, Othniel, Deborah, Moses, Joshua, Solomon, Absalom, Chenaniah, Shamgar, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Abdon and Samson were judges who played differing roles in the lives of the people of their generations. Some were warriors who saved their people out of bondage, others were spiritual leaders, whilst others were judges with God’s mandate to dispense justice. These latter judges are those enjoined to justify the righteous and condemn the wicked (Deuteronomy 25:1-2), to hear cases between fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him (Deuteronomy 1:16), to consider what they do, for they do not judge for man but for the Lord who is with them when they render judgment, who should let the fear of the Lord be upon them; be very careful about what they do, who should know that the Lord our God will have no part in unrighteousness or partiality or the taking of a bribe (2 Chronicles 19:5-7), to know that being a judge to mankind means being capable of judging saints and angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-5), to be with the righteous judgment (Deuteronomy 16:18), to give justice to every man who has any suit or cause (2 Samuel 15:4), defy the spouse who would say “have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19); not to act on the bid of a false accuser by convicting and sentencing an innocent person (Matthew 5:25), to rise and render recompense to the proud (Psalm 94:2), to not show partiality in judgment; to hear the small and the great alike,  not to fear man, for the judgment is God’s (Deuteronomy 1:17), to not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment (John 7:24 ), to open their mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute, to judge righteously, defending the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9), to rescue those who are being taken away to death;  and to hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter (Proverbs 24:11-12).

Viewed from another historical perspective, the judge has variously been likened to goddesses of justice like the Egyptian goddess Maat, who was a symbol of power and eternal life, the Greek goddess Themis, who symbolised authority and truth, or the Roman goddess Justitia, the blindfolded lady of justice who symbolised impartiality.

The image of a judge in the traditional African setting is not in any way different from the image of a judge in the Bible. Besides being able to communicate with the gods and interpret nature and its signs, the judge must be knowledgeable in the customary laws, traditions and practices of the communities and societies they operate in and must have in-depth knowledge of psychology, social phenomena and evolutionary trends.

By and large, the image of a judge is that of justice. Besides such intellectual qualities as the possession of a sharp mind that enhances the quick understanding of complex situations, issues and human phenomena, independent but open-mindedness, practical wisdom, hunger for knowledge, intellectual humility, good communication and listening skills, a good judge must possess such moral virtues as honesty, high integrity, courage and perseverance. A good judge must also be good and prudent in the management of personal and official time, which should reflect in the planning, management and prioritization of tasks and control of court proceedings. A good judge is one with innate and intuitive abilities to reduce case overhang or case overload.

A good judge must not be one lured to the bench for the power, influence and prestige that comes with the job. The motivation must be the boundless desire to serve humanity and the cause of justice. A judge must be courageous enough to face and live with such hazards of the job as adverse criticisms, unpopularity, loneliness and the possibility of being misunderstood and condemned for the best of judgments and intentions. The judge must, for the good of the justice system, engender confidence in the public and must fashion and dedicate personal life to the cause of justice.

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