Claws out as legal eagles aghast at mere mortals choosing gods
Vitriol is no argument - the country needs to radically reform the utterly discredited system for appointing judges, writes Shane Ross
Shafted by Shatter (Alan). Mugged by Mullen (Ronan). Jilted by Jim (O'Callaghan). Battered by Bacik (Ivana) and murdered by Michael (McDowell). All in the space of a political week. Happily I was wearing a flak jacket. What is going on?
The Law Library has sent its tanks on to the lawns of Leinster House. Unfortunately, the argument for judicial reform has been muddied by reactionary rhetoric imported from the Four Courts. Barristers and solicitors are making a last stand against reform of how we appoint our judges.
The personal attacks have been thoroughly entertaining. McDowell, the master of colourful inaccuracy, last week described my crusade for reform as motivated by "personal animus".
The voice of the Law Library in Leinster House was in cracking form. A little excitable, Michael was certain of it because he is in the know. Michael knew of a court case where I was a plaintiff. It had scarred me for life, left me with a personal vendetta against judges.
Ahem, Michael. I have news for you. I have never in my life been a plaintiff in any court case.
Perhaps he was referring to a case where I was a defendant. Let him come out and name the case. Although, first, it would be reasonable to expect the political voice of the legal profession to know the difference between a defendant and a plaintiff.
Not to worry. Senator McDowell, the Gonzaga-educated Senior Counsel, has form. It was he who once dubbed the mild-mannered Richard Bruton as the "Dr Goebbels of propaganda". With characteristic modesty, he continued: "Deputy Bruton is knee-high to me in terms of anything he has ever managed to do for this country." From the man who was Bertie Ahern's loyal tanaiste, that is pretty rich. Bertie's man is possibly not yet used to the expectation that politicians check their facts.
At least modest Michael, the former leader of the defunct Progressive Democrats, turned up for his public duties last week. Of course he did. His Four Courts comfort zone was under threat. He is not always there.
Yet last week, when his colleagues in the judiciary faced the horror of reform, his attendance was suddenly exemplary.
What is keeping the eloquent senator away from the Senate on other days?
I wonder. The Four Courts is a very attractive diversion. And a very lucrative one, too.
Well, at least he turns up when the legal eagles need a spokesperson to fight their corner.
Shoulder to shoulder, he sat in the Seanad last week, hour after hour, with fellow barristers Ronan Mullen and Ivana Bacik. By his side sat his faithful follower from his PD days, the admiring, salivating Senator Victor Boyhan, reunited at last with his lost leader.
The pantomime of lawyers in the Oireachtas should not divert us from reality. Vitriol is not an argument. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill is a deadly serious piece of legislation. It is radical. It is fundamentally reformist. It may have upset the legal wing of the Dail and the Seanad but its key pillars have worked elsewhere. It will remove (as far as is possible under the constitution) political patronage from the choice of judges. After that, it aims to make those who choose judges reflect much of the diversity in Irish society.
Diversity. Perish the thought! Watch Modest Michael choke on his caviar as he spits out the very word in Leinster House. Diversity is fine as long as the wretched diverse do not have a majority. For some reason, all our lawyers want a judge to chair the new Appointments Commission. And buckets of judges to make up the ordinary members. They want a legal majority and a chief justice in the chair.
No, not at all. Ask them. All they want is what they call "merit". Just like the rest of us. The problem is that it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that McDowell's idea of 'merit' is elitist, both intellectually and socially. How, they wail loftily, could any mere layman or laywoman have the "expertise" to choose the mighty judiciary? The condescension is stunning.
Opponents of the reforms in the bill fail to acknowledge that in Canada they have both a lay chair and a lay majority. They fail to concede that in England and Wales they have a lay chair, that in Scotland they have a lay chair with equal numbers of lay and legal members. In Northern Ireland, the Judicial Appointments Commission has 13 members. Four are judges.
In Ireland we intend to have eight lawyers on our 17-person commission. Five of the eight will be judges, providing their undoubted expertise. The chair and the lay members will be selected, not by politicians, but through the Public Appointments Service. The lay members will be drawn from such diverse but appropriate, backgrounds, as human rights, supports to victims of crimes, rehabilitation of offenders, dispute resolution, commerce, trade union activity and other themes.
Mere mortals selecting the gods.
We are about to end the utterly discredited current system. Politicians will be almost completely prevented from ever again putting their party supporters on the bench. The old Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (together will its three political nominees) JAAB, known affectionately in the Law Library as "JAABs for the Boys", will be abolished.
It will be replaced by a far more transparent, non-political commission.
Few could argue with the principle of removing political influence from the choice of judges.
Even the lawyers.
The problem is that under the guise of 'merit', they simply want to replace the political domination of judicial appointments with judges picking their own comrades.
This would be wrong. A reformed judiciary would be a major breakthrough in a protected world. The sight of the Mad Mullah from Ranelagh having apoplexy at the prospect of diversity is a bonus.
The generals in the Four Courts should withdraw their tanks from the lawns of Leinster House.
- Shane Ross is Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister