Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has appointed Court of Appeal Judge Martha Koome as the East African country’s first woman chief justice and head of the judiciary.
The announcement was made Wednesday in a special Gazette Notice — an official publication for notifying the actions and decisions of the government — hours after parliamentary approval.
“In exercise powers conferred by … the constitution. I, Uhuru Kenyatta, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defense Forces appoint Martha Karambu Koome to be the chief justice of the republic of Kenya,” Kenyatta’s announcement said.
She replaces David Maraga, who made history by leading the Supreme Court when it annulled Kenyatta’s 2017 reelection victory citing “illegalities and irregularities” and ordering a fresh election.
Before that historic decision, it was unprecedented in Africa for an opposition party to succeed in getting a court decision to overturn a president’s election.
Kenyatta won the second election after the opposition boycotted participation, saying the electoral authority had not implemented adequate reforms to ensure free and fair polls.
Koome won the chief justice position over nine other candidates, including some of the country’s most prominent lawyers and academics. The candidates were interviewed live on TV by the Judicial Service Commission in April.
Koome, 61, has had a distinguished career with more than 33 years in private legal practice and as a member of the judiciary.
Her appointment has not been without controversy. One of the candidates, lawyer Fred Ngatia, cast aspersions on how the commission members chose Koome, saying the process had been rigged. Makau Mutua, a Kenyan law professor working in the U.S., is seeking orders to compel the judicial commission to release the results of each candidate in order to give the selection process legitimacy.
None of the sitting Supreme Court judges applied for the position of chief justice, raising speculation that they were afraid to take up the mantle due to the pressure that Maraga received following the annulment of Kenyatta’s reelection. Maraga said he received death threats following the Supreme Court’s 4-2 decision against Kenyatta.
The Supreme Court judges failed to make a decision over an opposition petition to stop the fresh election after unknown assailants shot and seriously wounded the police officer who was the driver for the deputy chief justice the previous day.
Calling the judges “crooks,” Kenyatta vowed to revisit the annulment of his victory once reelected and since then the judiciary’s budget has been reduced. Kenyatta has also refused to appoint 40 judges who had been approved by the Judicial Service Commission in order to help reduce the backlog of cases before the courts.
Koome now faces the task of adjudicating any challenge to the upcoming presidential election to be held in August 2022.
She studied law at the University of Nairobi, graduating from the Kenya School of Law in 1987 with a distinction, and then was admitted to the roll of advocates.
She joined the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya and was elected chair of the organization. Koome led the civil rights organization in championing the establishment of the family division of the High Court, as well as the enactment of laws to protect the rights of families and children. She served on the council of the Law Society from 1993 to 1996 and has also been treasurer of the East Africa Law Society.
Koome was appointed as a judge in 2003 and served on the African Union Committee on the Rights and Welfare of Children between 2005 and 2010. She headed the Land and Environment Division of the High Court.
Koome obtained a Master of Laws degree from the University of London in 2010 and in 2012 she was appointed to the Court of Appeal.