The government has put the Judiciary Appointments Committee under intense pressure after Justice Minister Owen Bonnici resubmitted the name of rejected Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera for promotion, The Sunday Times of Malta is informed.
The committee recommends whether lawyers or magistrates are fit to accede to the bench or be promoted to the superior courts.
The minister’s decision to renominate Dr Scerri Herrera for judge was made soon after the change at the top of the judiciary last month, when former Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri retired and Mr Justice Joe Azzopardi was appointed in his stead.
Dr Scerri Herrera is the sister of Environment Minister José Herrera. Dr Bonnici first nominated her last year, but she was turned down by the Judicial Appointments Committee.
In its ‘secret’ decision (all the committee’s procedures are held behind closed doors) it advised she should not be promoted to judge of the Superior Courts.
Sources told The Sunday Times of Malta the committee had agreed that since the magistrate had been rebuked by the judiciary’s watchdog for breaching the code of ethics, particularly due to her behaviour in her private life, which compromised her integrity and personal dignity, the government would be setting a bad example by appointing her judge.
It appears the government is not taking no for an answer. Sources said that pressure was being placed upon the Judicial Appointments Committee to rethink its decision and give the green light.
A court source described the minister’s proposal as “unethical” and an important test for the new Chief Justice.
“Four out of five members of the committee, the Attorney General, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General and the President of the Chamber of Advocates, have already expressed their opinion on the Magistrate.
“The only ‘new’ member is Chief Justice Azzopardi.
“Changing this decision, taken less than 18 months ago, may seal the perception of the public and the court officials of the new Chief Justice. The credibility of the committee is also at stake,” one source told this newspaper.
By law, the government is not bound to follow the advice of the Judiciary Appointments Committee. However, it must make a statement in Parliament if it wishes to appoint a candidate who has been rejected by the committee. Both sides of Parliament agreed to this law.
The sources said that through the renomination of Dr Scerri Herrera, the government was testing the committee to establish its new boundaries.
The committee’s decision seems not to be enough for the government, as it is now proposing, once again, to promote Dr Scerri Herrera
Just a few days before Dr Bonnici’s first attempt to promote Dr Scerri Herrera, she was censured by the Commission for the Administration of Justice for giving public interviews, seeking publicity and entertaining the advances of a police inspector. At the same time, the commission found no proof that the magistrate had shown any professional favouritism by appointing architect Robert Musumeci as a court expert in a number of cases she was presiding over before the two became romantically involved.
According to the evaluation criteria set by the Judicial Appointments Committee, candidates are evaluated on “integrity, correctness and honesty in public and private life” and on their “knowledge of the code of ethics for members of the judiciary and willingness to undertake continuing professional development”.
To make matters worse for the committee, the government is seeking the promotion of two other magistrates whose appointments may be criticised. The sources said Magistrates Anthony Vella and Grazio Mercieca had also been nominated for promotions by Dr Bonnici, with Dr Mercieca to serve at the Gozo Court.
While there seems to be no problem with these promotions, as both persons are deemed to be ethical and capable, the timing may be critical.
Magistrate Vella is currently heading the sensitive inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and his promotion would mean having to relinquish it, with all the wasted time this would imply. If it happens, it will be up to the Chief Justice to assign the inquiry to a new magistrate of his choice.
“This will be another tough one for the new Chief Justice,” the sources said.
On the other hand, the promotion of Magistrate Mercieca just two years after his appointment would mean passing over other magistrates who are lobbying to take the Gozo position.
In 2016, when Magistrate Mercieca was appointed, Dr Bonnici denied that the government had promised he would become Gozo’s first full-time judge after a few years.
When asked about his denial regarding Dr Mercieca, Dr Bonnici tried to ridicule a Times of Malta journalist, stating that he “reads a lot of novels and fiction”.
Dr Mercieca, 61, served for many years as president of Labour’s Gozo section. In 2013, he was appointed chief adviser to the then Gozo Minister.