Three candidates on chief justice shortlist said 'no thanks'
For academics and professionals, being recognised by their peers is the greatest accolade; for a lawyer, there is no greater recognition of professional standing than being asked to become chief justice.
But three of the candidates on a shortlist of eight to succeed Andrew Li Kwok-nang as the city's chief justice felt it was a position they could refuse and effectively said 'no thanks'.
And four members of the commission responsible for the selection process, themselves eligible for consideration because of their appointments as judges or barristers, ruled themselves out of consideration at the beginning of the process.
The Secretary for Justice, Wong Yan-lung, was one of them, along with former chairman of the Bar Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, Mr Justice Roberto Ribeiro of the Court of Final Appeal and Mr Justice Louis Tong Po-sun of the Court of First Instance.
The Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission announced on Thursday it had recommended that the chief judge of the High Court, Mr Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, succeed Li as chief justice.
The recommendation has been accepted by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and lawmakers are expected to form a subcommittee to review the recommendation on Friday.
Details of the deliberation process are kept strictly confidential, but a report on the shortlist prepared for lawmakers' consideration gives some insights into how the process was conducted.
In total, the commission - which is made up of representatives from various sectors of the legal profession and the judiciary, as well as three lay members - held four meetings before deciding that Ma was the man for the job.
To avoid any conflict of interest, commission members who were eligible to be considered for the top job declared at the outset that they did not wish to be considered.
During the first two meetings, the commission set the appointment criteria.
These included requirements that a candidate be 'a person of high integrity' and an 'outstanding lawyer' with 'proven leadership and administrative abilities'.
After the second meeting, the members conducted consultations and sought views from their sectors, returning to the third meeting with a list of 735 potential candidates. During the third meeting, that list was pared down to a shortlist of eight.
The chief justice then made inquiries as to whether those on the shortlist were 'willing to serve' and whether they complied with the nationality requirement - or were willing to give up any right to foreign abode to comply with the rule.
At the fourth meeting, the chief justice reported that 'three were not willing to serve' but the other five were willing and complied with the nationality requirement. The candidates other than Ma were not named.
After the fourth meeting, the commission made its recommendation to the chief executive.
The report for lawmakers also includes the fact Ma is married to Madam Justice Maria Yuen Ka-ning of the Court of Appeal.
It says that to avoid any conflicts, Ma will not hear appeals from Yuen's cases, and administrative matters concerning her will be handled by the chief judge of the High Court, or by the acting chief justice.
Following Ma's endorsement by lawmakers, the chief executive will report the appointment to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, and Ma will assume his duties on September 1.
Following remarks made by Li in his speech at the ceremonial opening of the legal year on the independence of the judiciary, lawmakers have agreed not to invite Ma for further questioning before endorsement.
The commission still has another important task to finalise before the reshuffle at the top of the judiciary is complete - the search for a replacement for Ma as the chief judge of the High Court.
Lawyers are already beginning to tip Joseph Fok for the position, a highly regarded barrister with a good judicial temperament.
As an indication of his potential fast-tracking into the vacancy, he was appointed a judge of the Court of First Instance in February.