The chief justice of Kenya’s court system, Willy Mutunga, met with Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman yesterday to trade ideas about judicial transparency and accountability as part of Mutunga’s push to modernize Kenya’s courts.

In an interview at Lippman’s chambers in Manhattan, the two judges described the meeting as a "partnership" between the two courts.

NYLJ/Monika Kozak

Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s chief justice, chats yesterday with Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

"There are so many challenges we share," Mutunga said, adding that the partnership is a "learning experience for both jurisdictions."

"Even with all of the differences, there are so many commonalities," Lippman said.

In 2011, Mutunga became the first chief justice of the six member Supreme Court appointed under Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in 2010, which instituted a wide range of democratizing reforms.

Mutunga came to prominence in the 1980s as a pro-democracy activist in Kenya and went on to help found the Kenya Human Rights Commission, a pro-democracy and human rights group, in the 1990s. He later worked for the Ford Foundation.

Mutunga met Lippman last year during a visit to New York. Mutunga has been looking to other court systems as he leads reform in Kenya, including those of South Africa, India and Colombia. He said that looking at how other judiciaries deal with running a modern court system can help with those reforms.

"You don’t have to reinvent the wheel," he said. "You can look at this judiciary and see what makes sense."

Of Lippman in particular, Mutunga said, "I like the way he was dealing with politicians, the way the judiciary was being run."

Mutunga said that one of the biggest challenges he faced was getting Kenyan citizens to trust that the court system could deliver justice, rather than favoring the rich and corporations.

One sign that Kenyans have come to trust their courts, he said, came earlier this year, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a hotly disputed election had been fair. The losing candidate accepted the ruling, and there was no major unrest in Kenya, in contrast to the riots that broke out after a disputed election in 2008.

Still, Mutunga said there is work to be done in "changing the rough edges of the judicial culture" in Kenya.

The new constitution created, for the first time, an independently funded judiciary, appointed by an independent commission. It also created a body for investigating judges, and some judges have already been removed, Mutunga said, either because they were corrupt or not competent. Some judges, he said, have bristled at the changes.

Lippman drew a number of parallels between the hurdles described by Mutunga and those facing New York.

New York, Lippman said, also is working to bring into the mainstream of the justice system its town and village justices, many of whom are non-attorneys, and who have come under fire for conduct ranging from appearing drunk in court to failing to inform defendants of their right to counsel to convicting defendants without trial.

Lippman also drew a parallel between Indian tribal courts in New York and councils of elders in Kenya, which were recognized in the 2010 constitution as a legitimate forum for resolving disputes.

Mutunga said he is attempting to reconcile the councils of elders, which are important in traditional Kenyan society, with the protections of its new constitution, for example, with regard to women’s rights.

Lippman said that balancing the autonomy of tribal courts with the protections of the state justice system presents a similar challenge.

The two men readily acknowledged that the court systems of New York and Kenya are at different stages. Mutunga said that, in Kenya, it has been "easy" to boost public confidence in the courts by taking basic measures like making sure courthouses are in good repair and have working toilets and cracking down on blatant bribery.

But both agreed that they share a goal of making sure that the public understands the role of the judiciary and trusts it.

"Civic education is very, very crucial," Mutunga said.