Last Monday, Toni Abela and Grazio Mercieca were sworn in as a judge and a magistrate respectively. Tellingly, the Chief Justice chose the occasion to lecture us, nasty and paranoid people that we are, about our attitudes to the judiciary. He said that the two new members would no doubt manage to “rise above their political past”, and warned that it was not right to “ridicule and bash” judges and magistrates.
Wrong, on at least three counts.
The first is tense. Certainly in the cases of Abela, Wenzu Mintoff, and Joanne Vella Cuschieri, it was not at all a matter of “political past”. Rather, it was very much one of political present. All three were in the thick of it, almost right up to their appointments to the bench. Oddly enough for a Maltese avvocato, the Chief Justice seems to have confused his passato prossimissimo with his passato remoto.
Nor was there any evidence, at the times of their appointment, that they were in the process of rising above anything. Maybe I missed their miraculous moment of levitation, but as far as I know, Abela and Mintoff were until yesterday morning among the most vociferous and militant people in the Labour camp. Vella Cuschieri contested the 2013 general election on the Labour party ticket and was appointed a magistrate in 2014. Not much time to rise above, then, at least not unless she had access to NASA booster technology.
Second, the Chief Justice used the word “political” a tad too loosely. Abela, Mintoff and Vella Cuschieri are political as cardinals are religious. As former candidates and whatever else, they are part of the inner circle. Not that magistrates Joe Mifsud and Monica Vella were too far from that inner circle, but never mind. The point is that it is not politics in the Aristotelian sense we are talking about here. Humans may be political animals generally, but not all humans are Labour Party insiders.
Third, the Chief Justice got his envelope wrong. It is as if Silvio Camilleri, who lectures at University, had shown up at the wrong place and given a lecture on law to a group of pharmacy students.
What I mean is that his missive was wrongly addressed. If the judiciary is being bashed and ridiculed, it is not journalists who are responsible. That’s because the best way to bash, ridicule and undermine the judicial system is to appoint party people to the bench. It is government, not journalists, that have been busy doing this.
I never imagined I would have to spell this out, but there are three big reasons why such appointments are fundamentally wrong.
But first, a caveat. A number of tiresome commentators have said that Abela and the rest are nice and upright people who will likely make good judges. That, however, is completely irrelevant, because the argument is not about the integrity or otherwise of individual people.
The best way to bash, ridicule and undermine the judicial system is to appoint party people to the bench. It is government, not journalists, that have been busy doing this
Disgraced Chief Justice Noel Arrigo, for example, proved to be a very poor choice indeed. The reasons are both well known and completely separate from my argument, which is about the general principle of political appointments to the bench. I’m saying that, wise and nice and honest and upright and cuddly though they might be, Abela and the rest should never even have been considered in the first place.
By way of an analogy, some of the beneficiaries of the cardinale-nipote system of early modern Rome went on to do quite marvellous things with their wealth and privilege. That doesn’t mean, however, that nepotism was right. On the contrary, it was the Church itself – under some pressure, truth be told – that eventually saw the set-up for the kleptocracy that it was, and jettisoned it.
On to the obvious. The first reason why people like Abela should not remotely be considered is that their appointments are the paragon of shameless and brazen partisan scheming. No one can reasonably expect people to believe that Abela and the rest are coincidences, or that the Labour Party is so thickly populated with legal minds that one needn’t look elsewhere. After all, it was the Nationalists that until recently were nicknamed the partit tal-avukati.
Second, it seems that government needs reminding that impartiality in all its manifest and latent forms is the basic principle of justice. Context matters no end on this one, because party allegiance is probably the major fault line of Maltese society, and the one that is most strongly linked to partiality. The Nationalist and Labour parties are our Guelphs and Ghibellines, so to say.
Given this context, it is almost impossible for anyone who has been closely involved with partisan politics to make a convincing case for impartiality. This is especially true of Abela and the rest, whose involvement was as close as it gets. It was not so long ago that Mintoff called someone a “Nazzjonalist koċċut” (incurable Nationalist) on television. Whether or not Mintoff is now actually that – and I am not accusing him of anything – it is too much of a leap of faith to expect him to appear impartial.
Third, partiality is only part of a legacy that former candidates and inner-circle party people must own up to. People like Mintoff and Abela come with a baggage of connections, patronage networks and personal obligations. Just the sort of thing that’s a recipe for disaster in court, in other words.
In this vein, it’s no coincidence that Lawrence Quintano was one of the most respected judges in recent history. Quintano’s background was in teaching and the humanities. His farewell speech in 2014 was read out to a largely empty courtroom, partly because he broke with tradition and invited no one to the event. He cited literature as one of his inspirations and thanked his wife and daughter for their support. He also thanked his cat, and that was that.
Quintano is the antithesis of the sort of appointment that Abela, Mintoff, Vella Cuschieri and the rest represent. They may or may not deliver, but the point is elsewhere. A government that was not interested in bashing and ridiculing the judiciary would never have appointed them to their difficult and unconvincing posts.
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