The allocation of the Jason Rohde murder trial to Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe by her husband, Judge President John Hlophe, resulted in unhappiness among her colleagues as she was one of the most junior judges.
This is according to a blistering official complaint lodged by Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) alleging “gross misconduct” by judges Hlophe and Salie-Hlophe, which Judge Goliath charges compromises the proper functioning of the Western Cape High Court.
Attorney Barnabas Xulu, however, on behalf of judges Hlophe and Salie-Hlophe, said the complaint contained gossip, rumours and information “obtained from the grapevine”, adding it brought disrepute to the court.
Judge Goliath in her 14-page affidavit to the JSC said Judge Salie-Hlophe wielded enormous power, including determining her own working days and hours as well as having major clout in the appointment of acting judges.
In her affidavit, she wrote she had, during discussions with the judge president, proposed the high-profile Susan Rohde murder trial be allocated to Judge Andre le Grange, a relatively senior judge and experienced criminal lawyer.
Judge Hlophe had disagreed with her suggestion, indicating he needed time to consider the allocation, she stated.
“Later the same day, he allocated the case to his wife, Judge Salie-Hlophe. I accepted his decision – he is the judge president.”
Judge Salie-Hlophe had gone to Judge Goliath’s chambers a week later, on a Friday, to discuss the allocation, her complaint read.
“I explained that I had not considered her simply because I was of the view that a more senior judge should be appointed. I indicated to her in express terms that my view was not meant to question her ability, but merely a preference for a more senior judge.”
That Monday, however, the judge president was “visibly angry with me, gave me hostile stares and, for a few days, the silent treatment”.
“The role of Judge Salie-Hlophe in the division is disconcerting to say the least. She wields enormous power and, I say this reluctantly, some judges are afraid of her,” Judge Goliath said.
Judge Salie-Hlophe found Rohde, a property tycoon, guilty of murdering his wife, Susan, and staging her suicide at a hotel at Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch three years ago. He was sentenced to an effective 20 years in prison.
He has, however, maintained his innocence.
Last month, Rohde was granted R200 000 bail while he waits to appeal his sentence in the Supreme Court of Appeal.
Judge Hlophe married Judge Salie-Hlophe in 2015.
Judge Goliath in her complaint said it appeared “not to be a salutary practice” for the partner of a judge president to serve in the same division as questions of propriety would inevitably arise “in respect of sensitive allocations”.
After her appointment as deputy judge president, Judge Goliath, in her affidavit, said she became aware Judge Salie-Hlophe was “actively involved in the management of the court, the allocation of matters and, most disturbingly, the appointment of acting judges”.
“Judges complained that she is receiving preferential treatment in terms of her workload. Counsel she worked with or other practitioners with whom she was associated were appointed acting judges…”
Concerns were also raised in the division of candidates repeatedly being appointed to act for long periods until ultimately being permanently appointed, Goliath charged.
“One acting judge – a friend of Judge Salie-Hlophe – when first appointed to act, caused some consternation among the older judges. Apparently in his student days, the acting judge was extremely conservative and was implicated in the attempted shooting of a Democratic Party MP. The acting judge was acquitted on the said charge,” she said.
“I raised the matter with Judge Hlophe who agreed that this person should not be reappointed to act. Shortly after I left for the Constitutional Court, the acting judge was reappointed and continues to act for long periods. His presence underlines the power that Judge Salie-Hlophe wields.”
According to Goliath, potential acting judges would not be appointed or reappointed if Judge Salie-Hlophe did not approve.
Judge Goliath said she was also personally aware of complaints made against her colleagues by Judge Salie-Hlophe to the judge president.
“These complaints impacted negatively on the relationship with the other party not knowing why Judge President Hlophe was suddenly hostile to him or her.”
She also referred to two “more serious” incidents involving two judges brought to her attention by the judges concerned.
The first involved one of Judge Hlophe’s “better friends on the bench”.
“The allegation [against the judge] is purportedly of a sexual nature and I do not propose repeating it. Judge President Hlophe apparently verbally abused the judge and it seems that the judge was compelled to do consecutive criminal circuits away from the division as a form of punishment,” her affidavit read.
“The other incident is of a similar nature but in this instance Judge President Hlophe went to the judge’s chambers and physically assaulted him,” she alleged.
He was persuaded by his fellow judges not to file a criminal complaint, Judge Goliath wrote in her complaint.
“The allegations involved sexual impropriety and the two judges now, regrettably, have unresolved serious allegations against their names.
“Most judges are appalled by the above incidents, especially with Judge Hlophe resorting to physical violence. It renders our working environment intimidating, hostile and unsafe.”
Appointed to her position in July 2016, Judge Goliath charged she occupied the post “only in name”.
She acted as a Constitutional Court justice in 2018 and returned to the Western Cape High Court in April 2019.
Judge Goliath said she found all her duties as deputy judge president were suspended without any indication that she was no longer required to perform them.
‘Interfered in personal life’
At a meeting in October 2, 2019, in Judge Hlophe’s chambers to establish what he required of her to support him in the division, Judge Goliath said he had given her two reasons why he had “withdrawn” her duties.
One was that she had ostensibly “interfered in his personal life and that he considered it fatal to our relationship”.
According to Judge Goliath, an incident in 2017 occurred at Judge Hlophe’s house in Pinelands involving a third party, an unnamed female legal practitioner, when Judge Salie-Hlophe – who does not live there – went to his residence.
“She called me, disclosed certain information – which I elect not to set out herein – and told me that there was an electricity outage at her house. She asked me to go to her house to attend to her daughters for safety reasons. I went to her home,” her affidavit read.
“She later arrived at her house. Judge President Hlophe’s bodyguard drove her vehicle and another driver followed in a second vehicle. Judge Salie-Hlophe was clearly distressed and in pain. She asked me to take her to hospital and explained to me in graphic detail what had transpired at Judge President Hlophe’s house. Her hand, it appears, was injured during an altercation. The injury was sufficiently serious to require stitches.”
‘Rubbish, piece of sh*t’
Judge Goliath wrote should it be necessary, she would set out Judge Salie-Hlophe’s version of what had transpired at the house.
“As the incident occurred during recess, I only saw the judge president on the first day of the last term in 2017. I went to his chambers. He shouted at me in a very aggressive manner, chased me out of his chambers and called me a ‘rubbish’ and ‘a piece of shit’. We never discussed the incident.”
At their October meeting, Judge Goliath said the judge president referred to the event, accusing her of interfering in his personal life.
“He informed me that he was aware that Judge Salie-Hlophe phoned me while she was at his residence and that I subsequently took her to hospital. He added that his wife made certain damaging statements against me relating to the incident. I will disclose them at a later stage if required to do so.
“He explained that because of the allegation made by his wife he no longer wanted to work with me.”
Judge Goliath said Judge Hlophe had also told her he no longer required a deputy judge president.
According to Judge Goliath, Judge Salie-Hlophe was also allocated a retiring judge’s chambers by her husband, despite process seeing it advertised and allocated based on seniority.
She was, at the time, the most junior judge in the division, Judge Goliath said.
‘Nothing but gossip, rumour-mongering’
Judges Hlophe and Salie-Hlophe’s attorney, Barnabas Xulu, in response to the allegations, said they “have no further comments” after issuing an initial statement to News24 on Tuesday.
The statement dismissed Judge Goliath’s complaint as having “nothing to do with judicial misconduct but a series of gossips, rumour-mongering and information allegedly obtained from the grapevine”.
Xulu responded Judge Goliath had disagreed with Judge Hlophe’s management style, resulting in tension between the two.
He said it was “unfortunate that the complaint, rather than raise legitimate issues that improve this performance, brings disrepute to the court”.
The judge president would “demonstrate at the right time, before the correct forum, that the complaint revealed a deeply worrying standard of judicial competence from a member of the Bench in the position of the DJP [deputy judge president”, Xulu added.
“For example, it would be unconstitutional for a JP [judge president] to allocate cases to judges in the division based on the date of their appointment. Her view that judges are allocated cases based on their seniority belies the judicial attributes presumed to exist in judges.
“Allocating work to judges based on an unlawful classification of judicial officers is a serious threat to judicial independence and our client will not permit that practice.”
Judge Hlophe intended to show there was no merit to the complaint which, he said, brought the administration of justice “into serious disrepute” based on irrelevant material and “vague and embarrassing” information, Xulu said.
When contacted on Tuesday morning, Judge Salie-Hlophe referred queries to the Office of the Chief Justice.
Sello Chiloane of the JSC confirmed its secretariat had received the complaint which would be forwarded to the Judicial Conduct Committee for consideration and advice on how to proceed.