An ode to a year of a life in the law

This is an edited version of a speech I delivered at the Constitutional Court on 29 November 2018.

Bagaetsho, dumelang. You see, this thing of majorities ruling can be problematic when there is no counter-majoritarian force to protect you from the impulses of the majority. My speech today is the result of said impulse. And I say that accusingly, but I am actually very grateful for the opportunity afforded to me, by you, my esteemed colleagues.

Chief Justice, Justices, and colleagues. All protocol observed.

To speak of my time at the Court as life-changing is to understate the profound impact that it has had on my life, both personally and professionally. I arrived here in many ways as a baby. For a long time I was the youngest member of the clerk body, and my knowledge of the law, equally proportional. But not once was I ever made to feel like my contributions were any less valuable, nor did I ever feel like my lack of real-world work experience was a disadvantage. This analogy speaks to how nurturing the Court is, how we are all valued for whom and what we are, and how the work we do is designed to unearth and showcase our best qualities and attributes. For that, I am grateful.

Justices, let me start by acknowledging the Herculean nature of your work in this Court. And I mean that in the Dworkinian sense of the word. Every day you are required to resolve complex matters that require both that you arrive at the correct legal answer and that you ensure that the outcome is just and equitable to all the parties that come before you. That is the kind of work that Professor Dworkin had imagined his ideal judge would undertake. This Court faces a lot of criticism, from academics and practitioners alike. Whether or not that criticism is warranted is neither here nor there. But what none of us here today can deny, is that in every matter that comes before them, the Justices of this Court commit themselves to earnestly and honestly resolving whatever questions are raised by the parties with absolute fidelity to the Constitution and the law. Your willingness to engage extensively to find common ground and your inclusion of the clerks in this process has been most inspiring. Besides learning the subtleties of legal argument from all the emails we were cc’d in, we have learned how to maintain collegiality even when there are sharp disagreements over fundamental issues of principle. We thank you for being generous with your time and knowledge, and for the role that you have played in shaping us into the lawyers that we will become.

To my fellow departing clerks, thank you for the experience of a lifetime. The lessons that I have learnt are innumerable and if I ever become a good lawyer, I will have you to thank. My favourite author, James Baldwin, once said:

It goes without saying that the judgments of this Court change the world, in a small but significant way, for every person affected by them. Your role in ensuring that every footnote is correct, every comma in the right place, and that every assertion has a source, is indispensable in changing the world. Above all, your commitment to getting the work done against all odds has been a sight to behold. But perhaps our greatest achievement as a collective has been our ability to host “drinks on the roof” — what I like to call our “moments above the law” — without injury or incident. Well, except for Gabi’s ankle. But that’s a story for a more appropriate occasion.

Today is the beginning of the rest of our lives. We have our whole careers before us. I wish you all the best, at the Bar, the academy, the NGOs, the big bad corporates and of course, wherever else you may choose to go. May your lives be as fulfilling as our time here has been.

Remaining clerks, I imagine that by now you appreciate the gravity of the work that you do here. I have said this numerous times over the past few months, but let me say it for the very last time. No part of our work here is so insignificant as to be deserving of neglect. And yes, the job can get quite strenuous and you may sometimes feel like your efforts are not acknowledged or appreciated. That is not so. Always remember that you are here to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

A huge task lies before you: to ensure that successive generations of clerks perform their duties with the same amount of zeal as you have. You are some of the finest young legal minds in this country and an invaluable resource to this Court and I trust that you will have an amazing experience being at the coalface of South African jurisprudence.

Chief Justice, Justices, thank you for the opportunity and thank you for your time today.

Lawyer interested in constitutional law and theory. Son of Baldwin.

Lawyer interested in constitutional law and theory. Son of Baldwin.