In dissenting, CJ sets tone for independent legal minds, says ex-judge

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat was in the minority on two key decisions delivered by the Federal Court last week that touched on constitutional issues.

PETALING JAYA: Judicial independence in the Federal Court appears to be evident as judges are prepared to take opposing views to those of Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, retired judge Gopal Sri Ram said today.

He said this development also augured well as fractured rulings from the apex court could help in the development of laws in this country.

“In the past other judges would follow the chief justice in unanimous or majority rulings. The current batch of judges in the apex court appear to have broken the trend,” he told FMT.

Sri Ram said this in response to two key decisions delivered by the Federal Court last week that touched on constitutional issues and where Tengku Maimun was in the minority.

In the first case seven judges held that the Sarawak state assembly had the power to disqualify DAP’s Pujut assemblyman Dr Ting Tiong Choon because of his alleged dual citizenship.

In the second case, five judges declined to answer legal and constitutional questions posed by Anwar Ibrahim with regards to the validity of the National Security Council Act.

In both instances, Tengku Maimun and just retired chief judge of Sabah and Sarawak David Wong Dak Wah came out with strong dissenting judgments.

Sri Ram said the judges could have been motivated by Tengku Maimun’s statement last year that they were “lions in their own den and need not show loyalty to their superiors”.

“The loyalty that is expected from you is allegiance to defend the principle of the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and uphold the rule of law,” she had said in her speech after witnessing the appointments of judicial commissioners on Nov 28.

Lawyer Syed Iskandar Syed Jaafar al-Mahdzar said he could recall two occasions in the past when the chief justice was in the minority, but only at a time they were about to retire.

“My reading was that the rest did not want to follow him as he was a lame duck top judge,” he added.

Tengku Maimun, the first woman to be appointed top judge, was appointed last May and will remain in office until July 2025.

Syed Iskandar it was also clear that the other judges in the apex court were confident that Tengku Maimun would not impose her will on them and sincerely walked her talk as shown in her public statements.

“I believe the herd mentality will be a thing of the past in the Federal Court. In fact, I also see that High Court judges are showing independence by delivering strong judgments that no longer protect the executive,” he said.

Lawyer T Gunaseelan, however, said it was too early to judge whether the judiciary was on the reform path as “one swallow does not make a summer”.

“The majority rulings last week are nothing to shout about, especially in Anwar’s case as the judges had abdicated their constitutional duty by refusing to answer the questions,” he said.

Gunaseelan, however, said the emergence of persuasive minority rulings in the apex court was refreshing as it would enable lawyers to revisit the issue, albeit through other cases.

“The legal fraternity can help the bench to develop the law to be on par with other jurisdictions,” he added.