The Oireachtas, the judiciary and a constitutional crisis

 

Sir, – What commentators seem to have missed so far is that the Chief Justice has said nothing whatever to suggest that his colleague has been guilty of “stated misbehaviour or incapacity”, the test set out in the Constitution for removal of a judge from office. The issue that appears to have concerned the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court is whether various instances of a lack of judgment on the part of Mr Justice Woulfe have reflected badly on the court. It is essentially on that basis that the Chief Justice has expressed his personal view that his colleague should resign.

He has expressed this view notwithstanding that all such matters were known to Ms Justice Denham before she reported her opinion that, “Mr Justice Woulfe did nothing involving impropriety such as would justify calls for his resignation from office. Such a step would be unjust and disproportionate.”

As has been pointed out, the members of the Supreme Court do not get to decide who sits alongside them on the Court, and their personal views are of no relevance. The appointment of judges is a matter for the President, on the advice of Government.

Speaking for myself, I can see nothing in what I have read that could lead me to conclude that Mr Justice Woulfe has done anything that could be considered to amount to “stated misbehaviour or incapacity”.

To my mind at least, errors of judgment and failure fully to assess public opinion fall very far short of the sort of wrongful conduct that could justify the removal of a judge from office, with devastating effects on his young family and future career.

I sincerely hope sense will prevail and members of the Oireachtas will realise that there is no basis for impeachment.

I should point out that, as a barrister, I know all of the people involved. – Yours, etc,

ANTHONY ASTON,

Dartry,

Dublin 6 .

Sir, – How often have we read in the newspapers of appeals to the (higher) courts by people who felt that they did not receive fair consideration when their case, such as a disciplinary hearing, was not fairly dealt with. How often do we hear of judicial review proceedings being taken by an individual or group in relation to a decision with which they are unhappy.

The basis for all these cases is the issue of fairness and correct procedure, and that no one would disagree with same.

In the case of Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the Clifden dinner, the Chief Justice asked his predecessor Ms Justice Denham to investigate. As I understand it, she, after investigation and due consideration, reported that Mr Woulfe had not broken any law and that it would be disproportionate that he be required to resign his position as a justice of the Supreme Court.

Is it fair and just that the Chief Justice, having received the Denham report, is of the view that Mr Justice Woulfe should resign? Does it not call into question the Chief Justice’s judgment on this matter?

Mr Justice Woulfe should not be required to resign. However, he should have not attended the Clifden dinner and was wrong to do so. I suggest that he absent himself without pay from the Supreme Court for the next six months. – Yours, etc,

MARTIN CROTTY,

Blackrock,

Co Louth.

Sir, – How has this turned into Supreme Court v Woulfe?

The Chief Justice requested the former chief justice to look into this matter. She found that Mr Justice Woulfe did not break any law or knowingly breach any guidelines, and that calls for his resignation were “unjust and disproportionate”.

Despite this, the Supreme Court has rounded on Mr Justice Woulfe and called for his resignation. Why? Because of what he said in the transcript of the interview with Ms Justice Denham? The transcript informed the recommendations of Ms Justice Denham. Why is it now being used to justify a call for resignation? Why was the transcript, headed “strictly private and confidential”, put in the public domain in the first place? Why has the Chief Justice published his correspondence with Mr Justice Woulfe?

The Supreme Court’s handling of this matter has been unfair and disproportionate.

The measures put forward by Mr Justice Woulfe in his letter of November 9th are sufficient atonement. All sides need to agree to disagree at this stage and get on with it.

What an “informal resolution process” this has been. – Yours, etc,

KEVIN HAUGH,

Dublin 8.

Sir, – An eminent English jurist once proclaimed in court that a particular principle in law “was very clear to the man on the upper deck of the Clapham omnibus”. Might I suggest that Mr Justice Woulfe nip out onto the quays and board a Dublin bus and simply listen for the common sense expressed there. By the way, before doing so, could someone ensure that he is aware of the latest regulations, just to avoid any more unpleasantness. – Yours, etc,

BA TAPLEY,

Killiney,

Co Dublin.

Sir, – It would appear to me that the only question to be answered with regard to Seamus Woulfe and the Golfgate saga is whether or not he should be given a “Mulligan”. – Yours, etc,

BRIAN CULLEN,

Rathfarnham,

Dublin 16.

Sir, – As acknowledged by the Chief Justice in his correspondence with Mr Justice Woulfe, his position does not confer on him any authority to seek the resignation of a Supreme Court justice.

Given the Chief Justice’s expert legal knowledge, he must have known therefore that the publication of his views that Mr Woulfe should resign would clearly trigger a highly consequential set of events for the both judiciary and the Oireachtas.

In the midst of one of the most challenging health and economic crises of modern times, we now have the spectacle of a whole country’s senior political establishment having an unparalleled meeting to discuss how to deal with a judge’s controversial but entirely legal act of attending a social event (which had already been appropriately adjudicated on by Ms Justice Denham’s review).

The Chief Justice’s unprecedented and inappropriate publication of his call for Mr Woulfe’s resignation has singlehandedly escalated this matter into one of the most significant constitutional predicaments for the State since the X case. It is the poor judgment of the Chief Justice that should be called into question as a result. – Yours, etc,

DAVID O’CONNOR,

Fulham,

London.

Sir, –This episode is another example has to how the legal profession and judiciary are completely out of touch with reality and has put unwanted pressure on them to try and look like they are conforming to some form of normality. This charade of a self-governing body is pathetic. This performance by Mr Justice Woulfe and the Chief Justice screams one word, “reform”! – Yours, etc,

DAMIAN WHITE,

Dublin 12.

Sir, – The inability of the judiciary to address concerns about one of its own justices has thrown the question to the Oireachtas, forcing it to either ignore the concern, or undermine judicial independence. The Oireachtas is left with the dilemma of doing nothing, and causing a political crisis, or doing something, and causing a constitutional crisis. While the Supreme Court has the powers to review the disciplinary process of other organisations, it doesn’t have a disciplinary process of its own.

The Supreme Court and the Oireachtas should hang their heads in shame that we still don’t have a judicial code of ethics and a disciplinary process. – Yours, etc,

JASON FITZHARRIS,

Swords,

Co Dublin.

Sir, – Any undermining of the the constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers would surely be unwise. – Yours, etc,

MICK O’BRIEN,

Springmount,

Kilkenny.

Sir, – The current debate has moved on from Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the golf dinner. The issue now hinges on his reactions in the subsequent period.

There is no process under way to have him sacked from his post. He is satisfied that he has committed no legal offence.

At present, he is simply being asked to consider whether he should resign of his own free will.

He is being asked to assess whether he was lacking in insight or wise judgment in how he acted in the weeks since the scandal emerged.

In essence, he is being asked to question truthfully whether he possesses the competencies required to judge the rest of us. – Yours, etc,

SEAMUS FENNESSY,

Woodstown,

Waterford.