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Postcard from Nairobi, Kenya: Q&A with Judge Sean Wallace


Judicature International (2023) | An online-only publication
Greetings from Nairobi, Kenya postcard image

In Judicature International’s Postcard Series, judges from around the world answer a series of questions about the structure of their court, challenges they face, unique experiences, and interactions on the bench. This postcard was sent from Judge Sean Wallace of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal sitting in Nairobi, Kenya.

How is your court system structured? Where does your court fit into that structure, and where does a case go if your decision is appealed?

The United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) is a first instance, or trial-level, court. Under the UNDT Statute, there are three full-time judges in the Dispute Tribunal who “shall exercise their functions in New York, Geneva, and Nairobi, respectively.” There are also six half-time judges who are deployed up to half a year, as required by caseloads and any judicial absences affecting the work of the Tribunal. Appeals from the UNDT go to the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT), which consists of seven judges. UNAT sits in New York for several-day sessions usually three times a year, and UNAT judges generally sit on three-judge panels. Each Tribunal elects one of their judges to serve as President.

How are judges selected for your court? Is there a process for determining a judge’s level of qualification? Is a certain type or level of education required?

Judges on both UNDT and UNAT are elected by secret ballot of the United Nations General Assembly, with each of the 193 member states having one vote. All applicants must be “of high moral character and impartial, fluent in English or French, and have prior judicial experience (at least 10 years for UNDT and 15 years for UNAT).” For the last vacancies in 2022, there were 380 applicants from 78 countries. Ninety were invited to take a judicial examination comprising a judgment-drafting assignment and three short questions on international law. Next, 30 candidates were invited to interview on the premises of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, The Hague Branch. Then three or four candidates were recommended for each vacancy, and the General Assembly selected from amongst those recommended. Apparently, I am the first full-time Dispute Tribunal judge elected from the United States. All judges serve one non-renewable term of seven years.

What is your court’s process for handling cases? How many judges are there, how are cases assigned, how is a judge’s workload determined, and who is available to assist the judge?

The Dispute Tribunal has registries in New York, Geneva, and Nairobi, each with a full-time judge and Registrar, a position that is similar to a clerk of court in the U.S. Cases are assigned to a judge by the Registrar, normally in chronological order unless docket efficiency requires otherwise. There are target caseload ranges, and when the court’s caseload exceeds that range, deployment of one or more half-time judges is considered. In addition to the Registrar, I am assisted in Nairobi by an incredible staff of four Legal Officers (all lawyers) who assist with legal research and case preparation and three Legal Assistants who provide paralegal/administrative support.

How is judicial compensation handled? Does a judge’s salary depend on how many cases a judge hears or how fast he or she works?

Compensation is set by UN General Assembly resolution. Dispute Tribunal judges are remunerated at a level just below Assistant Secretary-Generals. In addition, there is a post-adjustment component to compensate for the differences in the cost of living and currency fluctuations in different duty stations. Half-time UNDT judges are paid proportionately for each month of their deployment. However, Appeals Tribunal judges receive only an honorarium of US $2,400 for each judgment they author and US $600 for each case on which they are members of the panel but do not author the judgment. It should be noted that United Nations judges do not pay tax on their compensation.

Does your court or judicial system have rules for recusal? What happens if a judge is asked to recuse because of bias? Who decides whether a judge is biased?

There are rules for recusal. Judges may recuse themselves, but if a party makes “a reasoned request for [recusal] on the grounds of a conflict of interest” the Dispute Tribunal President shall decide on the request. If the request seeks recusal of the President, then a three-judge panel decides whether recusal is warranted.

What kinds of interactions do you have with lawyers? With litigants?

My direct interaction with lawyers and litigants usually consists of case management discussions and hearings (trials). One of the interesting aspects of my job is that litigants, lawyers, and witnesses come from across the globe. At a recent hearing, the lawyers were from the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States. The parties and witnesses were from Belgium, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Finland, Morocco, and Italy.

How would you describe the general public’s understanding in your community of your role as a judge and your day-to-day work? Do you feel that people have a high level of trust in the judiciary?

While many people know about the United Nations, very few are familiar with the UN Dispute Tribunal. As a result, I spend a lot of time explaining my role as a UNDT judge. Given the public’s high regard for the United Nations as an organization, this seems to carry over into a high level of trust in the (small) judiciary of the UN.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your court?

I previously served 21 years as a circuit judge in Maryland, USA, and truly enjoyed that. However, it is a special pleasure to serve on the United Nations Dispute Tribunal. The UN does such tremendous work, often in very difficult circumstances. Just last week the United Nations held a global minute of silence in tribute to 101 UN staff members who have been killed while serving in Gaza over the last six weeks. Their sacrifice is incredibly inspiring, and I am proud to be a small part of the United Nation’s work around the world. Doing so in the beautiful nation of Kenya is also an amazing adventure.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.