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Impeachment may be long and winding legal avenue

IF she does not appeal her conviction or resign her position, District Court judge Heather Perrin – who faces up to five years in prison for deception – could trigger the first successful impeachment of a sitting judge in the history of the State.

In the past, where judges have been embroiled in any major scandal, they have resigned.

Under the Constitution, a judge can be removed from office only for "stated misbehaviour or incapacity" and only then if a joint resolution is adopted by both houses of the Oireachtas.

The rules on removing judges were revised in the wake of the fiasco surrounding Circuit Court judge Brian Curtin who was tried in 2004 for allegedly possessing images of child pornography.

The collapse of the trial of Judge Curtin – he was acquitted after the trial judge ruled that computer evidence could not be used because gardai searched his home with an out-of-date warrant – led to a public outcry.

In the aftermath, then Justice Minister Michael McDowell attempted to impeach Judge Curtin after the Kerryman refused to resign over the controversy.

As part of the unprecedented bid to oust Curtin, McDowell rapidly proposed – and the Oireachtas passed – a number of laws amending the powers of politicians to seek the removal of a judge.

The first legal change authorised a Dail or Seanad committee (or a joint Select Committee) to compel a judge to appear before it and give evidence.

The Child Trafficking and Pornography Act (1998) was also amended to exempt any proceedings of the Oireachtas from criminality by reason of the possession or distribution of pornography which had been criminalised under the 1998 law. As a result of Curtin, politicians now have five days after putting down a motion seeking a judge's impeachment to appoint a Select Committee – or else the motion will lapse.

Judge Curtin challenged the political inquiry into his conduct, but in March 2006 the Supreme Court upheld the process.

Eight months later, Judge Curtin resigned from the bench on health grounds, ending the unprecedented investigation.

He resigned just days after he had completed five years on the bench – the minimum period to qualify for his pension.

Throughout her trial, Judge Perrin, a leading light in the Christian Girls Brigade, maintained her innocence.

Her resignation or impeachment is not a foregone conclusion.

dearbhail mcdonald

Irish Independent