President Uhuru Kenyatta has suspended High Court judge Juma Chitembwe and appointed a tribunal to determine his suitability to continue serving in the Judiciary over claims of gross misconduct and impropriety.
The tribunal, which will be chaired by appellate judge Mumbi Ngugi, is tasked with re-evaluating the evidence that formed basis of the Judicial Service Commission’s decision to recommend the removal of Justice Chitembwe.
Members of the tribunal include Senior Counsel Fred Ojiambo, High Court judge Abida Ali Aroni, Labour Relations Court judge Nzioki wa Makau and lawyer James Ochieng’ Oduol.
Other members are former Kenya Air Force Deputy Commander, Lt Gen Jackson Ndung’u, and former Teachers Service Commission chairperson Lydia Nzomo.
The lead counsel of the tribunal will be Senior Counsel Kiragu Kimani, while the joint secretaries will be Mr Jasper Mbiuki and Ms Sarah Yamo.
Mr Mbiuki works as the Secretary for Legal and Legislative Affairs in the Executive Office of the President while Ms Yamo is the Secretary, Administration, in the Executive Office of the President, Cabinet Affairs Office.
The President also appointed Joseph Gitonga Riungu (a prosecutor working at the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions) and Edward Omotii Nyang’au (a lawyer) as the assisting counsels.
He formed the tribunal following a recommendation by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) that Justice Chitembwe be removed from office over leaked videos that depicted him in a scheme to compromise an active court case.
Appointment of the tribunal sets the stage for a second round of battle for survival for the judge.
In 2009, Justice Chitembwe was charged with corruption in relation to the sale of a National Social Security Fund (NSSF) land in Nairobi.
In July last year, he was arrested by Directorate of Criminal Investigations officers over allegations of receiving bribes.
Police claimed that they impounded US$7,000 during the raid. He later claimed the money was for payment of school fees for his children abroad.
“The Head of State and Government notes that the petition contains grave allegations regarding the conduct of the Judge and further notes that allegations of gross misconduct on the part of a judge erode the faith of Kenyans in the fair administration of justice,” said Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua in the communication.
He said the mandate of the tribunal would be to consider the petition for the removal of the judge from office and to inquire into the allegations contained in the matter.
Mr Kinyua said the tribunal would be expected to prepare and submit a report and its recommendations expeditiously and exercise all the powers conferred upon it by law for the proper execution of its mandate.
The tribunal will have a chance to re-evaluate the evidence that informed decision of the JSC and either recommend his sacking or reinstatement. Recommendations of the tribunal to the President are binding.
A judge who is suspended from office gets half pay until he or she is removed from office or reinstated.
A judge can challenged a tribunal’s decision by filing an appeal at the Supreme Court within 10 days of the tribunal’s recommendations.
The President acts in accordance with the recommendations made by the tribunal on the expiry of 10 days, if no such appeal is filed.
Justice Chitembwe is the eighth judge –under the 2010 Constitution – to be subjected to a tribunal over allegations of misconduct.
His predecessors in the process include former Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Barasa, retired Supreme Court judges Jackton Ojwang and Philip Tunoi, former High Court judges Joseph Mutava and Martin Muya and Labour Relations Court Judge Njagi Marete.
At the tribunal, Justice Chitembwe faced various charges including participating in a television interview during which he admitted that former Nairobi governor Mike Sonko, one of the parties in an impeachment petition, was his relative.
He also admitted that he was related to a person named Amana Jirani, who was allegedly his proxy in the acquisition of a parcel of land in Kwale that was at the centre of a succession dispute. The succession case was still before him but he allegedly failed to disclose his personal beneficial interest in the property.
The JSC also noted that the judge had held several meetings with Mr Sonko, Mr Jimmy Askar and Mr Said Mwajirani in which they discussed the sale of the Kwale land, which reflected adversely on his impartiality as a judge.