Former justice minister Michael McDowell has attacked Transport Minister Shane Ross, claiming his desire to reform how judges are appointed stems from a “personal agenda”.
Now a senator and formerly an attorney general, Mr McDowell took issue with government proposals to ensure a lay majority and lay chairperson sit on a new body which will recommend the promotion of judges.
He said the whole process was a “whitewash” as the Government would still have the final say on who gets promoted to the bench or higher courts.
Cabinet members are now on a collision course over the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which is scheduled for eight hours of debate in the Dáil this week.
The latest development in the long row over the new commission saw Mr McDowell yesterday directly criticise Mr Ross, who has been instrumental in pushing for reforms.
The Programme for Government was agreed between the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael and included a promise to overhaul the judicial appointments process.
Mr McDowell yesterday said he agreed with comments from the President of the High Court Peter Kelly over the weekend that the plan for new advisory body was “ill-conceived”.
The former Progressive Democrats leader said it was the role of government — as enshrined in the Constitution — to decide who was appointed and which judges are promoted.
“It is a role which is best left in the hands of people who are accountable to Dáil Éireann,” said Mr McDowell.
The new body will be made up of a lay majority and lay chairman, but the idea has come under criticism with concern about how people unfamiliar with the bench or law could recommend judges.
Mr McDowell suggested that the body may attempt to “embarrass” the Government into selecting its chosen candidates. But he also claimed Mr Ross had his own reasons for the change, including an experience in the courts.
“He is driving it from a personal conviction, based on an unfortunate experience he had in the courts himself, that the judiciary exercise their powers and are appointed on the basis of cronyism,” said Mr McDowell. “That, unfortunately, is a gross untruth.”
Mr McDowell said Mr Ross, in one of his books, had also attacked judges.
“Look at his book... and look at the venom towards the judiciary which he exhibits in it himself,” said Mr McDowell. “A whole chapter dedicated to the judiciary and that it operates on the basis of cronyism, which is not true.”
The process to appoint changes will be debated today, tomorrow, and Thursday for up to eight hours under a bill brought by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.
Mr Flanagan, writing in The Irish Times yesterday, said there had been an “attempt to introduce an uncertainty” in recent times and he had been greatly “disturbed by the tenor” of debate, a comment taken by some as a direct criticism of Mr Ross.
Mr Ross claimed the judicial appointments system, in general, was “rotten”. He did not return calls yesterday but told RTÉ he “fully understands the resistance” to the reforms from the legal lobby. However, he also said he looked forward to the changes and a lay majority on the body recommending judicial changes.
The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, promised in the Programme for Government, will ensure a lay majority and lay chairman are on the planned new commission, which will replace the old Judiciary Appointments Advisory Board.
This was agreed following demands from Independent Alliance minister Shane Ross in the Government deal last year.
The bill will overhaul the principles for how judicial appointments are recommended to Government, which will still have the final say on who gets which job.
The latest row revolves around concerns about the separation of powers and whether politicians are criticising judges and, equally, whether the judiciary are interfering in Government business.
Judges, through their association, have gone as far as to claim the new system would be bad for the State and would not, in fact, depoliticise decisions about judges.
They argue that it makes no sense to allow people outside an industry to decide its future, i.e. to recommend the appointment of judges when they are not familiar with their work or the law.
The bill will be the subject of three days of Dáil debate this week, as the Government tries to pass it before the summer recess.
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