Sri Lanka’s Constitutional Council Thursday averted a major crisis in the judiciary by avoiding controversy and instead recognising integrity and honesty in filling top slots in superior courts.
The Council applied high standards of probity and rectitude in considering the nominees for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal sent in by President Maithripala Sirisena.
President Sirisena last week nominated a single candidate each for the two superior courts, Deepani Wijesundera for the Supreme Court and Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena for the Court of Appeal.
However, it became clear that the two names would not clear the bar with civil society groups preparing to mount a campaign against them and Sirisena sent in more nominations this week avoiding a confrontation with the Council, informed sources close to the process said.
Despite the ongoing friction between Sirisena and his United National Party-led government, he headed off a show-down and also avoided a face-off with influential civil society groups that backed his election in 2015 by sending in a fresh list of nominees.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who heads the Council issued a cryptic statement on Thursday saying they had chosen two nominees to fill the vacancies in the Supreme Court out of the four names suggested by the President. They had also selected one out of the four names for the single seat in the Court of Appeal, the Speaker’s office said, without stating the names.
It is reliably understood that the two new nominees of the Council to the Supreme Court are both upright judges currently serving the Court of Appeal. Both have a track record of being impartial and honest, the sources said.
The appointments, yet to be ratified by the President, assume added significance given that Chief Justice Nalin Perera is due to retire in February. The new appointments would have had an impact on the next Chief Justice appointment.
Based on Sirisena’s latest criterion of nominating Perera as the Chief Justice based on his seniority on the bench, the next in line for Chief Justice would have been Deepali Wijesundera if she had got on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Perera is due to retire in February 2019.
Official sources said there had been intense back room manoeuvring by a former chief justice to get Wijesundera appointed to the highest court. That may have actually ruined her chances, the sources said.
It is learnt that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) breakaway faction was keen to have another judge, Eva Wanasundara, as Chief Justice, but that was shot down by Sirisena who appointed Nalin Perera, a career judge known for his independence. This scuppered political moves to form a “caretaker government.”
With several Rajapaksa loyalists facing court cases in the coming months, taking control of the superior courts is crucial to the SLFP breakaway faction. The central theme of talks between Sirisena and the Rajapaksa faction had been to get Wanasundara, a close associate of the former president, as the Chief Justice with a view to influencing cases against them.
The Chief Justice is also vested with powers to decide which cases should be directed to the newly established High Court trial-at-bar. The court has already scheduled Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s trial to begin on December 4.
Wanasundara granted Gotabhaya an interim order preventing his arrest in connection with several high profile corruption cases. She subsequently recused herself from hearing Gotabhaya’s petition, thus giving him more time and delaying the investigations, legal sources said.