If a life could be mapped, that of the Honorable Arthur Chaskalson would surely appear as a straight line starting from a commitment to human rights, and leading, without deviation, to the bench of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and the position of Chief Justice. It is a long line, but an unwavering one, giving every indication that it will continue in the direction of the common good.
Born in Johannesburg in 1931, Arthur Chaskalson studied law at the University of Witwatersrand, where he found time to distinguish himself as a member of the football team and still graduated cum laude in 1954.
As a barrister, he represented defendants against South Africa's apartheid government, including the infamous Rivonia Trial of 1963-'64, in which Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
He was a founding member of the Legal Resources Centre, and its director from its inception in 1978 until 1993. The non-profit organization sought justice through the legal process, by challenging the implementation of apartheid laws.
Recognized as an expert in constitutional law, Justice Chaskalson was a consultant to the Namibian Constituent Assembly, was a member of the Technical Committee on Constitutional Issues in South Africa, and a consultant to the Multiparty Negotiating Forum. He was a consultant to the African National Congress during the constitutional negotiations, and a member of the Multiparty Negotiating Forum's Technical Committee on Constitutional Issues. In that capacity he participated in drafting an interim Constitution. In 1994, President Mandela appointed him the first president of the country's Constitutional Court. "The existence and promotion of an independent judiciary is seen as a core value of democracy and of good governance," Justice Chaskalson said in a published interview. "Civil society has a very important role in democracy generally. It has a role to bring to the fore issues that need to be debated, and in drawing attention to conduct that doesn't respect the rights of people. It has a very important role as far as human rights is concerned by identifying issues, bringing them to the fore and seeing that they are confronted at different levels, through the political process and at times through the court process."
One of his best known judgments is a 1995 decision against the death penalty. In it he wrote, "It has not been shown that the death sentence would be materially more effective to deter or prevent murder than the alternative sentence of life imprisonment would be. Taking these factors into account, as well as the elements of arbitrariness and the possibility of error in enforcing the death penalty, the clear and convincing case that it is required to justify the death sentence as a penalty for murder, has not been made out."
Justice Chaskalson is noted for a careful, scholarly approach to what are often emotional issues. Notwithstanding his somewhat liberal image – he generally prefers the term "progressive" – he is widely respected as a man of letters. He served many years as a member of the Board and Faculty of Law at Witwatersrand, and has served as chairman of the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for South Africa. Among many other affiliations, he was a longtime member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights, and has held many positions with the Johannesburg Bar and with the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.
He is married to Dr. Lorraine Chaskalson and they have two grown sons, Matthew and Jerome.