Cabinet not told judges applied for post filled by Séamus Woulfe

At least three judges wrote to Government seeking job taken by former attorney general

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee confirmed she considered expressions of interest from serving judges for the Supreme Court position. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee confirmed she considered expressions of interest from serving judges for the Supreme Court position. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

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A number of senior judges wrote to the Government to express interest in the Supreme Court vacancy filled by Séamus Woulfe, but the Cabinet was not told of their applications before he was selected in July.

The Irish Times understands that at least three judges had written to the Government seeking promotion to the Supreme Court.

A spokesman for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee confirmed she considered expressions of interest from serving judges, and other judges eligible for the position, before recommending Mr Woulfe to Cabinet on July 15th. Mr Woulfe had served as attorney general in the previous government until it left office on June 27th.

It is understood that Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil Ministers were told that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) had recommended only one name but were not told other judges had expressed interest in the post.

Nor were they told that judges do not apply for a post through the JAAB, though this has been the practice for some years.

The Taoiseach’s spokeswoman did not respond to a series of questions submitted by The Irish Times on Thursday.

A spokesman for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan confirmed he was not told about other judges applying during an informal discussion with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste about the appointment.

Mr Ryan said he was “happy to recommend to my Cabinet colleagues the proposal by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board that he should take on that role, which was then agreed at Cabinet”.

‘Confidential’ discussions

Asked if the Minister for Justice had specifically advised the Taoiseach that sitting judges had expressed an interest in the post, Ms McEntee’s spokesman said that “discussions at Cabinet, with ministerial colleagues and with the Attorney General are confidential”.

Mr Martin said after the July 15th Cabinet meeting that Mr Woulfe had been recommended by the JAAB but did not refer to applications from other judges. Mr Martin said the appointment “was completely independent of Government formation talks, had nothing to do with Government formation talks whatsoever”.

Sitting judges seeking to move to higher courts do not go through the JAAB, the mechanism that barristers and solicitors use to apply for judicial office and which is chaired by Chief Justice Frank Clarke.

Mr Justice Woulfe was selected to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan the previous summer. He told the Denham review into his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner that he applied to the JAAB after the February general election.

Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan had retired in June 2019, but the process to replace her did not begin until February 4th this year – four days before the general election – when the Chief Justice wrote to then minister for justice Charlie Flanagan asking that the vacancy be filled.

‘Standard practice’

A spokesman for Ms McEntee said: “As is standard practice with judicial appointments, the Minister for Justice, having considered expressions of interest from serving members of the judiciary; other judges eligible for the position; and the recommendation of JAAB, then recommended a name to Cabinet in line with the recommendation of JAAB.

“The Minister brought a memorandum for the Government’s consideration to Cabinet on July 15th last. The Government decided to nominate Séamus Woulfe for appointment by the President to the Supreme Court.”

Governments have wide discretion in judicial selection and are free to nominate lawyers who are not recommended by the JAAB or who do not lodge a formal expression of interest.