JCC confirms ‘grossly negligent’ conduct finding against Judge Desai over BDS involvement

Judge Siraj Desai (PHOTO: Son/News 24)

The Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) has dismissed an appeal by Judge Siraj Desai against it ruling in June that he was guilty of “grossly negligent” conduct by involving himself in political controversy in support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.

In a press statement welcoming the JSC’s finding, Rolene Marks national spokesperson of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) said: “This unequivocal decision by the JCC, consisting of senior and highly respected judges, upholds the integrity of the judiciary and reinforces the ruling that Desai’s support of antisemitic BDS movement was politically controversial.

“The decision confirms that Desai’s grossly negligent actions, which he defended as legal, non-controversial and non-political, were in fact a clear breach of the judicial code, involving him in political controversy that is fundamentally incompatible with his judicial responsibilities.”

Desai retired from the Western Cape High Court in 2020 and was appointed last year as legal services ombudsman, to head up a new platform for the public to lay complaints and report unethical behaviour against legal practitioners.

Marks said the SAZF’s initial complaint, processed under section 17(4)(a) of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) Act, 9 of 1994, “was vindicated by the JCC’s conclusive judgement”.

“The JCC’s firm stance, issuing a written warning to Judge Desai as per section 17(8)(c) of the JSC Act, serves as a powerful reminder that the judiciary must remain above the fray of political partisanship and controversy. The revelation of Judge Desai as a signatory to a BDS Coalition statement, which led him into political controversy, highlights the critical need for judges to maintain their objectivity and refrain from engaging in activities that compromise their judicial impartiality,” said Marks.

Here statement continues: “The appeal ruling states that ‘when accepting appointment of the judiciary, Judges sacrifice the enjoyment of certain constitutional rights in favour of preserving the principles of judicial independence, impartiality and integrity which are crucial to a properly functioning judiciary.’ It says that when Desai ‘endorsed and supported the [BDS Coalition] statement in question, he knew or ought to have reasonably known that he was getting involved in a political controversy. That notwithstanding, he went ahead and signed it in his capacity as a Judge. He also knew or should have known that his conduct in doing so would constitute a breach of the Code of Judicial Conduct but he continued with such conduct regardless of the consequence. In these circumstances, he was grossly negligent.’

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“Judge Desai’s continued defiance of the judicial code, evident in his ongoing participation in politically charged anti-Israel activities even while his appeal was under review, is an affront to the principles of impartiality and integrity that are the bedrock of the judicial system. 

“The SAZF now insists that Judge Desai adhere strictly to the JCC’s ruling to avoid further undermining the esteem of the judiciary and to prevent himself from being in contempt of the Judicial Conduct Committee.

“This landmark ruling sends a clear signal to all holders of high public office: involvement in political controversy, especially when it aligns with organisations like the antisemitic BDS movement, is not only inappropriate but also a violation of the ethical standards expected of those in judicial positions. 

“Such actions erode public confidence in our respected judicial system and contravene the principles of fairness and impartiality.

“The SAZF views this ruling as a crucial step in combating the pervasive and insidious nature of antisemitism, often propagated under the guise of political activism. This decision is a testament to the SAZF’s dedication to upholding the rule of law and protecting the values of democracy and justice. 

“The SAZF will remain vigilant and proactive in its efforts to ensure that the high standards of judicial conduct are upheld, and that any form of antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism is robustly challenged.”

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