Judge Curtin’s resignation a big relief all round

A complex and hazardous impeachment process is now at an end, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

BRIAN Curtin’s resignation yesterday was privately greeted by relief yesterday by senior politicians on all sides. His decision to step down on medical grounds brought a very complex and legally daunting impeachment process to an end.

Already, it has taken 30 months. And that was just stage one.

Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte probably spoke for most of his colleagues yesterday when he expressed his relief that it was over.

“It has proved to be a messy business. It’s the first time Oireachtas was asked to assert its powers,” he said.

When Judge Curtin was acquitted in Tralee Circuit Court in April 2004 on charges of possessing child pornography, the Government was faced with a major constitutional problem.

There is no legislation that allows for a judge to be dismissed for stated misbehaviour (Judge Curtin, after his acquittal, was technically an innocent man). But the Constitution did confer on the Oireachtas the reserved powers to impeach a judge. The problem was that it had never been done.

And when the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell tabled the motion to impeach the judge, the Dáil and Seanad agreed that a seven-person all-party committee would be established to gather evidence.

It is now well over two years since the committee, chaired by Denis O’Donovan, held its first formal hearing. But for 15 months of that time, the Committee’s work was suspended while Judge Curtin’s legal challenge wended its way through the courts. The judge was given leave to challenge the process in December 2004. Only in March this year, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the process, was it in a position to resume work.

It was reported at the time of Judge Curtin’s trial that 280 images depicting child pornography were allegedly retrieved from the computer hard disk. The truth or otherwise of this would be key to any impeachment motion. As would the Judge’s credit card transactions. It was commonly understood that the basis of the judge’s defence to this was that his computer had been infected by a Trojan virus (in other words; that the computer had been tampered from a remote location).

Thirteen days ago the Judge’s legal team requested a significant adjournment to allow it fully prepare its case.

By this stage at the start of November, the Judge had accrued some pension rights, having reached five years of service. But as of last week, his legal team were determined to continue. But all that changed when the medical results of the MRI scan became available sometime last week, which showed the judge was suffering from an organic brain condition. When the hearing formally opened yesterday, John Rogers SC for the judge outlined the new development and said the judge now intended to retire.

There were no “sweetheart deals” or no secret agreements. Judge Curtin’s pension of less than €20,000 will be only an eight of his salary. It is true that, though innocent in the eyes of the law, he has been pilloried and has suffered personally. However, public sympathy is almost non existent, given that his acquittal was on the basis of a technicality and the Government believed there was sufficient grounds for a motion to dismiss him for his behaviour.

For Denis O’Donovan, there was some moral consolation from yesterday’s development. The Supreme Court, he pointed out, had approved a process which would provide a template for future impeachment hearings. But given the many potential pitfalls that lay ahead, it is likely that the Government will move quickly now to close this loophole and find a less problematic mechanism for judging the judges.

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