Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Irish Times Op-ed on Judicial Independence

An opinion piece in the Irish Times (unlike the typical Irish Times op-ed this one actually advances some opinions!) today claims that the chief justice must be elected by the other judges of the Supreme Court to "honour the principle of judicial independence perfectly. If ... such a closed system is too cosy, the choice could be made by a committee consisting of judges, lawyers and respected laymen along the lines of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board that now screens appointments from the profession to the bench."

Maybe. But what is the evidence that the present system is compromising independence? The example offered by the author - Liam Hamilton's appointment after the beef tribunal's mandate was concluded - is not necessarily a reason to take the appointment power away from the government. It offers a good argument against employing sitting judges in tribunals where the government might be a party. Such appointments need to be predicated on an embargo against the judge being promoted or appointed to another position upon retirement to avoid suspicion. Otherwise suspicions about quid pro quo deals are hard to dispel.
To be sure, the current system might benefit a judge particularly adept at obtaining political support but I haven't seen any evidence that it has compromised independence or quality or that the alternative method would offer superior results.

The author also writes that "judicial independence requires that the decision on promotions from the High Court should be removed from government to an independent body ... in line with what happens in England and Northern Ireland," and makes a plea for "a more general reconsideration of the implications of the constitutional guarantee of judicial independence reviewing the system of judicial appointments, the tenure and accountability of judges, guarantees of their impartiality and how their remuneration as well as the overall funding of the courts should be decided."

Again, maybe. It would help if there was some evidence that the current system is broken. Are judges of the High Court and Supreme Court not "independent" because they are appointed by the government? Is there evidence that they rule in favour of the government at a rate suggesting bias? Is there evidence that bad judges have been promoted? Is there evidence that "less-independent" judges write poor judgments or are otherwise poor performers? Finally, while independence is important, accountability and transparency are at least of equal importannce when one talks about judicial reform.