CICERO said “a nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.”
As an amateur (ie, unpaid) historian, philosopher, and psychologist, Mr Justice Peter Charleton is likely to be familiar with the above words, written more than 2,000 years ago by the Roman lawyer, philosopher, and political theorist. Judge Charleton will preside over the Disclosures Tribunal, which will investigate an alleged smear campaign against Garda whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe.
As a music lover, choir member, occasional pianist, and father of three, Judge Charleton is grounded, while, at the same time, in possession of an imposing intellect. He wears such brilliance lightly and is known to be charming, engaging, and approachable.
He has served as chairman of the National Archives of Ireland advisory council and is supervisor of the Judicial Researchers’ Office. He was a founder member of the RTÉ Philarmonic Choir and is a member of the board of the Irish Baroque Orchestra.
A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and King’s Inns, Judge Charleton was called to the Bar in 1979, and became a senior counsel in 1995. He was appointed as a judge of the High Court in 2006, and assigned to the Commercial Court from 2010. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in June, 2014.
He worked as counsel for the Morris Tribunal into allegations of corruption in the Donegal division of the Garda Síochána, and appeared in many high-profile murder trials, including Catherine Nevin’s.
Judge Charleton is the author of a number books on criminal law and has also published on family and constitutional law, copyright, extradition, and judicial review.
He has published papers in journals, including the Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law, the International Journal of Law and the Family, and the Yearbook of the International Commission of Jurists.
As a judge he will be familiar with the “sly whispers” and downright lies uttered in courtrooms by way of evidence. Like most members of the legal profession, Judge Charleton knows a lot about lies: who tells them, when they are told, and for what reason.
Unlike most of his judicial colleagues, he has brought his knowledge of criminality to bear in an essay on the human condition, exploring how lying facilitates criminality.
Drawing on his experience as a barrister, he wrote Lies in a Mirror: An Essay on Evil and Deceit. It isn’t just an essay; it is a magisteral treatise on the nature of evil and an exploration of criminal and deviant behaviour.
The book, published by Blackhall Publications, created a stir among academics, as well as legal circles, when it was first published, in 2006.
Its central thesis is that there is a lie behind every crime. He concludes that deceit is the engine of evil, while what he calls “lying myths” are the driving force behind many crimes.
In 2007, the book was reviewed in the Irish Theological Quarterly by Rev Dr D Vincent Twomey SVD, professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Dr Twomey, noting that Judge Charleton spent a quarter of a century as a criminal barrister, suggested that “his experience of dealing with criminals, it seems, provoked a search for some understanding of the inner dynamic of evil”. Trinity College law lecturer, Diarmuid Rossa Phelan, described the book as “a treasure trove of examples of evil”, citing the judge’s use of his own experience of crime in Ireland and his research on some of the major genocides of the 20th century.
Last year, in an address to the law school of Bangor University, in Wales, Judge Charleton spoke about homicide and hatred, and about how long-time criminal lawyers can become dispirited, but that writing about it can be cathartic.
In an abstract to the lecture, he said that, although there are patterns to human conduct, people are not predictable. “Surrounded by various pressures and driven by instincts which remain powerful, despite our reasoning factor, human beings can be driven to cruelty and can rationalise plain evil by resorting to justifications, to group support, to distancing, and to bizarre notions of just deserts.
“The patterns in homicide, on an individual scale, are not so different to the patterns in mass homicide. Ideology plays a part, as do ignorance and revenge.”
He sees lying as the driving force behind the most extreme forms of violence. In Lies In A Mirror, Judge Charleton writes: “When you meet people who have subjected themselves to a process of self-deceit over years — and, certainly, the criminal courts are just one of a number of good places to meet them — it strikes you that they have been diminished by their lies.
“A lie is an attack on reality. It affronts creation. It undermines the clarity of our perception, the very basis of consciousness, and leaves us vulnerable to unpredictable consequences.”
On the opening day of the Disclosures Tribunal, in Dublin Castle, Judge Charleton made his position on lying abundantly clear. Neither is he prepared to tolerate any person or institution, before the tribunal, that engages in ducking and diving or delaying tactics.
“Every lie told to this tribunal will be a waste of what ordinary men and women have paid for through their unremitting efforts,” he said.
“Every action of obfuscation, of diversion of focus and non-cooperation, is unwelcome for that reason.”
Liers and deceivers have been warned.