What you need to know:
- Her academic journey has seen her as a lecturer, head of department, professor and dean at the University of Nairobi Law School.
- Patricia Kameri-Mbote has also been an advocate of the High Court since 1988.
The framers of the constitutional requirement that one of the qualifications for the office of Chief Justice or judge of the Supreme Court should be a person with a distinguished academic career of 15 years may not have had anyone in mind.
However, those who are familiar with the person and work of Patricia Kameri-Mbote may think article 166(3) of the Constitution was made to her measure.
Patricia Kameri-Mbote holds the whole spectrum of academic qualifications. She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Nairobi, Master in Law and Development from Warwick University, a Master of Juridical Sciences and Doctor of the Science of Law from Stanford University as a Fulbright scholar.
In addition, she holds a higher Doctorate in Law from the University of Nairobi, being just the seventh person and first woman to whom the qualification was awarded.
Her academic journey has seen her as a lecturer, head of department, professor and dean at the University of Nairobi Law School.
She has taught at Strathmore University where she was charged with the preparation of the curriculum before the establishing of the Law School at that institution. Outside Kenya, Prof Kameri-Mbote has had visiting lectureships at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and at the University of Kansas in the US where she taught International Environmental law.
She has been an advocate of the High Court since 1988 and was among the first female advocates to whom the Senior Counsel title was conferred in 2012.
As a teacher of law, her students – including this writer – say Prof Kameri-Mbote is conscientious and a tough but fair grader whose classes are fun.
Her marked scripts are a delight for students because of the polite remarks geared at improvement, ranging from pointers on appreciation of legal points missed to grammar.
In the days students would submit handwritten scripts, there would be an occasionally nudge to improve legibility.
Sceptics to Kameri-Mbote’s candidacy may argue that the professor has spent most of her time in research and misses a perspective a CJ needs to bring to the office. This is rife but is far from an objective view. A Chief Justice is first a judge of the Supreme Court.
The principal attribute that any candidate to a Supreme Court should have is a thoughtful legal mien. Prof Kameri-Mbote’s academic qualifications would prove that she possesses deep legal thinking capacity in spades.
Suffice that there are judges in countries whose courts enjoy universal acclaim as trendsetters who have gone into the office without being actual litigators and straight to the highest court.
Justice Hale of the United Kingdom is an example. She went from academia to the Supreme Court eschewing the traditional pathway of practice at the bar. In 2017, Lady Hale became President of the Supreme Court after serving as a justice of that court for almost a decade. Prof Kameri-Mbote is of equal stock and would aptly perform in that role.
However, the CJ is not just a judicial office. The Chief Justice is also an administrator. In fact, it is the administrative side of the role that gives the holder the title Chief Justice. As a judge, the CJ, despite being President of the Court, is a first among equals. It is the administrative and policy-setting roles that give breadth to his title because these are not shared with any other office.
In Kenya, the CJ’s administrative roles include chairing the Judicial Service Commission and the Commission on the Administration of Justice among others.
As dean and as a previous Acting Executive Director at the African Centre for Technology Studies, Prof Kameri-Mbote must have built a platform from which the administrative and policy-forging dimensions of the Chief Justice’s roles would be along her alley.
Knowing that the attempt at determining what kind of CJ would become is but a game of fantasy at its best, one must still try to glean what her legal posture is, to the extent that it can be gleaned from her career.
In this sense, Prof Kameri-Mbote’s writings would be a rich source of material for this sojourn. The first point to note is that her academic interests are wide and deep. She has taught and written on the Law of Evidence, Women, Children and Minorities’ rights in the legal process, Law and Development, Environmental Law and Intellectual Property law to name just a few.
From this spectrum of academic engagements, one could draw many lines to her thoughts and approach as to the essence of Law and legal processes.
A rough paraphrase would be this: that law exists to serve public goals and is on whole but one of the tools of justice. In this regard, one sees a professional aware that law-making and its application must be a perpetual quest for understanding the society in which it operates.
At the core of her intellectual outputs is that the law is seldom complete as a standalone and must draw from other disciplines like socio-economic and technological realities in which it operates.
Her writings are clear that the Judiciary in a developing nation, particularly in Africa, is best placed to help these societies attain their desired developmental outcomes.
Prof Kameri-Mbote’s understanding on the role of the Judiciary in this process is not woolly by any means.
While it not publicly known whether she had ever contemplated a judicial career, she is clear about the role of the Judiciary in the overall constitutional architecture and in the life of the citizens.
Prof Kameri-Mbote is not woolly about how she would approach this.
A peek into a paper she co-authored fervently argues that a Judiciary operates at its best when it realises that it is not reactionary but that it must provide leadership on the issues of the time.
The title of the paper is loud and clear on her view of the role of court: Courts as Champions of Sustainable Development.
A lot has been made in the recent past about the need for a Chief Justice who fosters cordial relationship between the Judiciary and other branches of government.
If Prof Kameri-Mbote’s views on this were unchanged, she would answer as she put it in that Paper: “The effectiveness of the Judiciary will depend to a large degree on its independence and freedom from political interference, especially by the Executive branch and its fidelity to the rule of law.”
By these words, Prof Kameri-Mbote posts her flag to her mast: That the Judiciary is a co- equal arm of government.
If Prof Kameri-Mbote were to become Chief Justice, she would have scored a double first in being the first woman and first academic in the office, both of which are perhaps long overdue.