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When moral values that claim to govern a case collide

By Jacob Eze

To Judge is to decide the claims of others with reference to the expectations of an audience that defines the process of decision. Expectations, not precepts create the need for judgment.

The audience of law is the community, requiring that judicial decision should reflect an explicit community judgment and not merely an explicitly personal judgment. The community need assurances that the security, represented by the judicial system, can reconcile and harmonize facts, rules, social conditions and moral values, of the society. This is the test of judicial impartiality and of reason in law.

To conform with the audience expectations the judge must look outside his own will for criteria of judgment so that at the end he is able to convince the audience that the result does not depend on a fact at issue between the parties that we know is false; does not depend on false assumptions about social conditions; does not depend on an ethical judgment that the community would reject; and does not depend upon a tortured reading of a rule. The result need not please everyone, Judges cannot and need not discover one right solution that everyone somehow believes best. They can only try to convince us that they have attempted to reconcile the above four factors.

The judicial wisdom does not lie with finding the interpretation which would please all, but in knowing when to acknowledge the presence of uncertainty and the necessity for choice that enables law to change for the better. In carrying out his herculean task, the Judge is guided by the fact that legal decisions, as with judgments, require choices from among competing values.

A more difficult problem arises not when two idea of justice itself collide.  The changing knowledge of the world forces a reconsideration of critical dimensions of legal issues. Therefore when moral values that claim to govern a case collide the Judge can do justice by reaching a fair compromise between these interests. Thus, the constitution contains language protecting the freedom of the press. It also contains language ensuring the fairness of criminal trials.

But an unrestrained press can do much to prejudice the fairness of a trial. In this instance the Judges can do justice by reaching fair compromise between these interests. A value, a preference, or a moral feeling is not a concept, for those who adopt value that conflict with yours will call you biased, and you may feel the same way about them. But some values are better than others even though the argument remains.

Stare decisis stabilizes law vertically because no court should ignore a higher authoritative decision on a legal point but the questions are: what if a supreme court makes a decision but then, either a few years or many decades later, develops nagging doubt about the wisdom of its precedent? When should court follow its own precedent in the face of such doubts?

The intricacies of horizontal stare decisis will guide a Judge further after he has discovered, following the application of his fact-freedom, that a case from the past legally governs or controls the case at bar.   The Supreme Court then, will depart from or remain with the statuesque based on the values that justify either of the choices. The court would be confronted with the question of: which principle guarantees stability; protection of reliance; efficiency in the administration of justice; equal treatment of persons similarly situated and ‘whether the choice would maintain the good image of justice?   Indeed the Supreme Court looks or ought to look at the value that foster some hope of encouraging or maintaining cooperation of parties by jointly agreeing to argue within the limits of disagreement that rules provides.

The task of judging is choosing among plausible alternative possibilities, not solving an algebra problem. Even Judges who work to discover purpose may disagree about the resolution of a specific case. The question is: once a precedent or series of precedents fails to give a clear answer on a point of law, should court leave it to legislatures to change that questionable interpretation by statutory amendment?

When adherence to a prior interpretation or series of cases interpreting a statute promotes stability in law and this stability in turn allow citizens to plan their affairs on the basis of certain and stable law, or still when stability promotes the paramount social goal of cooperation, courts should not abandon stare decisis.

Similarly, if a citizen now deserves to receive the same treatment which another in a precedent did or if we feel stare decisis would preserve efficient judicial administration or a positive public image of justice then courts should honour it but when stare decisis does not promote these goals, court should freely ignore it.  ARARUME VS. INEC. It injures no citizen to declare that something once held criminal is no longer so, but it does seem unfair to convict someone after declaring that his actions were not crimes. Indeed every judgment is an attempt, (not a closure) to find statutory or constitutional meaning.

Unfortunately, some Judges and legal scholars believe that judges should invariably follow the first judicial attempt to find statutory meaning even when they have doubt about the wisdom of the first attempt and, worse, when the characteristic of the problem do not call for stare decisis. This apparent rigidity in putting a high premium on compliance with tortured rules explains why highly placed critics and some Judges in Nigeria remained askance over the decision in Ararume’s case and lesser judicial receptive to that of Amaechi vs. INEC. Yet they are coalesced in the belief that the decision in R.B.K Okafor Vs. Onuoha does not accord with serenity any more having regard to the values and events of today.

Again, the question is, when should court prefer a different interpretation and ignore or overrule an earlier court first attempt to make sense of the statutory meaning? Once written, the words of a statute will not change, but because they are general, vague, and sometimes ambiguous, court will certainly have the opportunity to interpret those same words in many different ways. Such generality explains and justifies the existence of courts.

Vagueness and ambiguity encourages participation. The participation that ambiguity and vagueness inspire encourages the legal process and the society to develop a virtual capacity to change its formal rules with the less formal changes in human needs and values.

In prochnow v. Prochnow (1957) 274 Wisconsin 491, Robert and Joyce were married September 2nd, 1950 and had no children except the one whose paternity is the only fact in dispute. Robert began his military services in February 1953 and rarely came home on furloughs except twice – October and December when he spent eight and ten days respectively.


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