Judging the judges

Appointing persons in certain posts with two-thirds majority in Parliament is achievable and not impossible – as some claim

Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti will be Chief Justice
Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti will be Chief Justice

The news that the Government and the Opposition have come to an agreement on the appointment of Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti as Chief Justice and also on the method of appointments for members of the judiciary, is a silver lining around the cloud that currently darkens our island.

Although the Prime Minister said in Parliament that judicial appointments were once a subject which led to political division but now will lead to national unity, no details on the agreed upon method for future judicial appointments were published.

Some might think this as very strange. On the other hand, I see the possibility of an agreement on principle that has still to be fleshed out in terms of a written law or procedure. However, this next step should not be left undone for too much time, as otherwise the popular satisfaction that the news brought about will dissipate into nothing.

As things stand, the Prime Minister could use the powers vested to him and just choose the Chief Justice – as has been done since and whenever Malta had a Prime Minister. Instead he opted to go to seek parliamentary approval for the nomination, with the Opposition expressing itself in favour of the appointment of Judge Chetcuti.

One hopes that the Leader of the Opposition was correct when he said that this was not a change in form but a change in substance. As he put it, the change is not about the candidate in question but in the fact that the decision was taken between the government and the opposition.

Finally our politicians rose to the occasion and behaved in a very mature and responsible way. If this is the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic pushing us to realise the fragility of humanity, then so be it. I would have preferred, however, if our politicians realise this fragility without the need of a pandemic!

This also goes to show that appointing persons in certain posts with two-thirds majority in Parliament is achievable and not impossible – as some claim.

The appointment of the post of Chief Justice and of the judiciary has long been a controversial point. Although in December 2018, the Venice Commission had criticised the Prime Minister’s absolute power to choose judges and magistrates, this state of affairs had been criticised also by a number of local opinion-makers. Unfortunately, many still think that what is said by foreign bodies should be given more weight than what is said by local observers.

Repubblika, the NGO that had been pressing for changes to be made to the Constitution to ensure a judiciary independent from the government, praised the agreement between the two sides of Parliament – yet another sign of much needed maturity.

Rewriting history

Unfortunately lack of maturity was very evident in last Sunday’s editorial of the Labour Party weekly, Kullħadd.

The writer explained that the COVID-19 pandemic found Malta to be well prepared and then proceeded to rewrite history by attributing all that Malta has achieved over the years to the different Labour governments that had been in power.

Reading the editorial one gets the impression that Labour governments were perfect and never made mistakes while other governments never did anything at all – whether right or wrong.

The truth is very different, of course. When in power Labour made huge mistakes: the ‘reform’ in tertiary education was, perhaps, the biggest of them all. I could go on and on but that is not the point.

Acknowledging your side’s mistakes and the achievements of your political rivals is a sign of maturity, not weakness. I therefore attribute last Sunday’s ridiculous editorial in Kullħadd to the writer’s immaturity.

But this sort of thing must be checked by people who matter in the Labour Party. To be respected, it cannot keep on repeating the old mantra that Malta’s success as an independent nation – improbable as many thought it would be – can be attributed solely to one political party.

The same goes for the PN propaganda machine. Although it does not go to the ridiculous extreme of last Sunday’s Kullħadd editorial, it also makes immature considerations, extolling whatever the PN governments did and depicting Labour governments of just having been responsible for a series of messes.

Orbán’s power grab

Passing measures ostensibly to tackle coronavirus, the Hungarian parliament on Monday voted to give Prime Minister Victor Orbán the unlimited power to rule by decree without any time frame.

This legislation marginalises the Hungarian parliament and allows Orbán to rule by decree, like a dictator. The law also introduces jail terms for spreading disinformation about the virus, raising fears it could be used to shut up critics of the government’s approach to the pandemic.

Many observers rightly feel that this emergency law is incompatible with Hungary’s EU membership.

As, Sophie in’t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s rule of law group, put it: ‘Viktor Orbán has completed his project of killing democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. Clearly, the actions of the Hungarian government are incompatible with EU membership.’

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a statement on Tuesday calling for all emergency measures to be “limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate,” and not lasting indefinitely. “It is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the treaties,” Von der Leyen said in the statement that did not mention Hungary.

Meanwhile, Eliot L. Engel, the chairman of the US House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee, said Orbán was making “a blatant power grab in the face of the worst global health crisis in recent history”.

In a thinly-veiled attack against Orbán, EPP leader, Donald Tusk, said that governments using the coronavirus crisis to stage an executive power grab would be “politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable.”

In a letter to European People’s Party staff, Tusk insisted that the coronavirus crisis should not be used as an excuse for state overreach.

“The state of emergency, or the state of danger, must serve the governments in their fight against the virus, and not strengthen their power over the citizens,” Tusk wrote in the letter, adding that “making use of the pandemic to build a permanent state of emergency is politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable.”

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