Profiles

Martha Koome’s rise strikes gender balance at top court

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Justice Martha Koome during the CJ position interview on April 14, 2021. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

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Summary

  • If approved by Parliament and becomes Kenya’s third Chief Justice after the passing of the Constitution in 2010, and also the first woman CJ in the country’s history, Justice Koome, 61, will be joining Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu and Justice Njoki Ndung’u at the top court.

If Martha Koome becomes the country’s next Chief Justice (CJ), the Supreme Court shall have ended a 10-year wait to comply with the constitutional one-third gender rule.

Article 81(b) of the Constitution states that not more than two-thirds of members in elective and appointive bodies shall be of the same gender, while Article 27(6) proposes legislative and other measures, including affirmative action, to be put in place to achieve the rule.

If approved by Parliament and becomes Kenya’s third Chief Justice after the passing of the Constitution in 2010, and also the first woman CJ in the country’s history, Justice Koome, 61, will be joining Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu and Justice Njoki Ndung’u at the top court.

Gender activists have hailed her appointment given her credentials and her fight over the years for the liberation of women and children.

During her interview, Justice Koome exuded confidence and never shied from giving her strong views especially on how she will steer the Judiciary once she assumes the seat. One thing that Kenyans admire from the mother of three and daughter of a Meru peasant is her humble background and the determination to rise higher.

“I grew up in rural areas in Meru in a village so I am a villager to the truest sense. My parents were peasant farmers and we were 18 children from two mothers,” she said.

She highlighted how as a girl, she struggled to overcome the odds stacked against her to join the University of Nairobi, where she graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Law in 1986.

She did not also hide the fact that she has a bias for children and will defend them at all costs.

“Children have no voice, so I choose to speak for them because I recognise they are our bridge to the future and unless we nurture them, our future will be precarious,” she said in a past interview.

In one of her landmark judgments, Justice Koome together with Justice Roselyn Nambuye and Fatuma Sichale ruled that Teachers Service Commission cannot escape blame if harm befalls a child in a public school, out of negligence.

“In the final analysis, we find the appellant had a statutory duty to ensure the minors had a safe learning environment which it failed to do. The absence of provisions for remedy for breach of that statutory duty was no bar to stop the minors from filing a claim of damages under the tort of negligence and the Constitution,” the judges said.

Late last year, Justice Koome was announced as a runner-up for the 2020 UN in Kenya Person of the Year, for her advocacy for the rights of children in conflict with the law as well as child victims.

“I recognise that children are vulnerable due to their age. I also recognise when they are in conflict with the law or are victims of offences, it is because of a failure of a system. The society, family or community has failed them. That makes children victims,” she said.

Justice Koome added that when children are brought before the courts, they are traumatised and stigmatised such that it is so difficult for them to adjust to a normal life and reach their full potential as adult citizens.

“This is why we prioritise children matters for hearing,” she said.

Justice Koome joined the Judiciary in 2003 and served in several stations among them Nakuru and Nairobi, before she was elevated the Court of Appeal in 2011.

She once described her court as the “most accessible, efficient and friendlier” and was instrumental in the establishment of the Family Division of the High Court.

During the vetting of judges and magistrates in 2012, Justice Koome chose to be interviewed in public. She readily acknowledged that corruption was rampant in courts, stating that when in private practice she had given up criminal law because of its pervasiveness.

She admitted that corruption is still rampant during her recent interview before the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). “It is not only a perception, corruption is there. You cannot stand and say A, B, C and D are corrupt. Because corruption is not practiced in the open,” she said.

Justice Koome said the most important thing is to accelerate the handling of cases so that the time litigants have to wait for the conclusion of their cases can be reduced. “That way you erode both the perception and the reality of corruption in the Judiciary. I would enhance communication from Judiciary side. We have been doing good things that we don’t tell the public about,” she assured.

She began her legal career in private practice in 1988, where she ran one of the most successful women law firms at the time. She did her Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law from the University of London and completed it in 2010.

Before joining the Judiciary, she had distinguished herself as a defender of human rights concentrating on gender rights. She represented political detainees and persons charged with politically instigated offences during the volatile period of one-party rule.

“I wish to convey my profound gratitude to all well-wishers who encouraged and prayed for me. I thank God and seek your prayers as I go through the confirmation process,” she said in her acceptance speech.