The Government risks a major rift with the country’s judges over what essentially are reforms that were agreed to sweeten last year’s deal with Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance .
The judiciary is rightly concerned about interest groups and non-legal experts deciding on sensitive recommendations on who should join their ranks. But for years, political friends of governments have been promoted while a cabal of judges controlled recommendations to government about who got the call-up.
We are at a very sensitive juncture where Oireachtas members and judges risk blurring the separation of powers. Now that the matter is being debated in the Dáil, judges have written to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this week with a stark warning that the new system would have “implications for the administration of justice”.
So what are the arguments for and against the Judicial Appointments Commission?
Under the regime change, the new body will be chaired by a lay person, unlike the current body, which is overseen by Chief Justice Susan Denham.
There will be 13 members, three of whom will be judges, unlike the current appointments body, which mainly comprises judges.
Appointments will be on merit. Furthermore, the new commission will recommend to the Government three names for every vacancy.
Judges claim the new system is “ill-conceived”; that it makes no sense for lay people to pick out judges and that this will damage the administration of justice.
Some critics suggest that Transport Minister Shane Ross, the alliance member championing the reforms, has a “personal” agenda and only got this Bill agreed because Fine Gael wanted to get back in power.
Such are the claims of former attorney general Michael McDowell and Fianna Fáil respectively.
It is also bizarre that Mr Ross — who calls the current appointments system “rotten” — did he not block the unchecked promotion of Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal last week as opposed to favouring her advancement?
When his spokesperson was asked yesterday if he would do a doorstep interview, she said this was highly unlikely as “he doesn’t do doorsteps”.
A compromise which might defuse the row would be if the Chief Justice would chair the new commission. This has been proposed by Fianna Fáil and retired judges. Nonetheless, the Government plans to ram through the changes without accepting any legislative amendments.
This doesn’t sound very democratic from a new regime promoting egalitarianism.