Barristers express mixed views about so-called Golfgate crisis

Some believe Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe should resign and others do not

Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: fallout from his attendance  at the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden has led to talk of impeachment. Photograph:  Gareth Chaney/Collins

Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: fallout from his attendance at the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden has led to talk of impeachment. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Stunned, sympathetic and horrified that it has come to this, was how one practising barrister described his reaction to the crisis in the Supreme Court.

The fallout from the attendance of Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe at the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden has led to talk of impeachment.

“It is the way this has been managed that has made it so bad,” said the barrister, speaking off the record.

Friends and supporters of Mr Justice Woulfe might have done more to explain some “home truths” to him earlier in the crisis and the judge himself had shown a “blind spot” when it came to understanding the public perception side of the controversy, he said.

As for the Supreme Court, it “kicked the can down the road” by setting up the Denham review, when the facts were fairly clear. The court in August asked former chief justice Susan Denham to carry out a review of the judge’s attendance at the dinner.

Because the court hadn’t tried to resolve the matter directly and earlier, it had allowed both sides to “get stuck in their positions”.

The barrister said he had friends who believed the judge should resign and others who felt he should not, “but sympathy for Séamus is universal. His wife is a colleague, and there is great sympathy in the Bar”. Mr Justice Woulfe is married to barrister Sheena Hickey.

‘Judicial review’

“The Government will try to impeach him, he will seek a judicial review, and it will be tied up in the courts for years,” the barrister predicted.

Another barrister who sometimes appears before the Supreme Court claimed “a lot of people are pretty bemused” by the actions of Chief Justice Frank Clarke.

“It’s not like him to take as forthright a step as this,” the barrister said, referring to the top judge’s decision to state publicly that he believed Mr Justice Woulfe should resign. “He’s normally fairly sure-footed.”

“That’s not what judges do, express their personal opinion,” the barrister said. “It was unnecessary.”

Impeaching a judge was for serious matters such as being caught fixing a case, or taking a bribe, which had not happened in this instance.

The so-called Golfgate saga involved an error of judgment, and “judges make errors all the time. That’s why we have a Court of Appeal”.

A third party

Referring to the Denham report’s finding that Mr Justice Woulfe should not be asked to resign, the barrister said the Supreme Court had asked for the view of a third party and now appeared to be ignoring that view.

It appeared that the court was determined that Mr Justice Woulfe would resign, but it was not for the members of a collegiate court to say they did not want to work with a particular member of the court.

The decision of Mr Justice Clarke to publish his correspondence with Mr Justice Woulfe must have been designed to “up the temperature” and try to pressurise Mr Justice Woulfe to resign, the barrister said.

Another barrister had the view that if the Government did not impeach Mr Justice Woulfe, then it was likely he would remain on the court and that would be the end of the matter.

He believed it was up to the politicians to decide if the circumstances of the crisis constituted sufficient reason to impeach Mr Justice Woulfe for “stated misbehaviour”, and up to them to decide what that phrase in the Constitution meant.

He did not believe there would be strong grounds for Mr Justice Woulfe to challenge such a move, given that the Chief Justice has now publicly expressed the view that the judge should resign.

Another barrister, again speaking off the record, speculated that if Mr Justice Woulfe did not resign, there was a possibility others in the court might resign in protest, given that the Chief Justice had asked Mr Justice Woulfe to go, and the judge had refused to do so.