Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera rebuked over ethics breach

Commission for the Administration of Justice rebukes Consuelo Herrera for breaching judges’ code of ethics with unbecoming behaviour, but finds no proof of impropriety or favouritism

Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera (left) and blogger Daphne Caruana Galiza (right): in 2010 the blogger hit out at the magistrate in a series of posts about her private life
Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera (left) and blogger Daphne Caruana Galiza (right): in 2010 the blogger hit out at the magistrate in a series of posts about her private life

Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera has earned a rebuke from the Commission for the Administration of Justice after a six-year review of allegations made against her by one of her former friends: the Malta Independent columnist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.

In its three-page conclusions, which were seen by this newspaper, the judiciary watchdog said Scerri Herrera had breached the judiciary’s code of ethics with behaviour that had compromised her integrity and personal dignity, and which had placed doubts on the independence and integrity of her office – namely by her attendance at parties and seeking public exposure, but also entertaining the amorous advances of a police inspector.

But the Commission found no substantiated evidence that the magistrate had shown professional favouritism towards the architect, Robert Musumeci, before the two became companions.

Neither was there any evidence that she had visited Singapore on work-related travel unnecessarily, and that she had irregularly taken a police inspector with her as a legal expert; or that she had accepted gifts that could have influenced the execution of her duties.

The conclusions of the judiciary’s watchdog sum up a saga that culminated in the investigation of the magistrate, after Scerri Herrera and her companion, Robert Musumeci, became the target of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

It was at a dinner party which Scerri Herrera hosted some time in January 2010, when her dinner guests included the broadcaster Lou Bondì and his partner Rachel Attard, that the magistrate had gloated that the press would break the news that Caruana Galizia’s husband had filed a domestic violence report against his wife.

When Caruana Galizia got wind of the gossip – Attard had called her from Scerri Herrera’s own guest bathroom that very evening, she had testified in a libel suit – she struck hard with an unstinting volley of blogs and photos of the partying magistrate that had been posted on Facebook.

Those allegations became the subject of the Commission’s investigation, and a criminal defamation action that Scerri Herrera later retracted.

 The Commission however squarely rebuked Scerri Herrera for three specific instances in which she compromised her integrity as a magistrate.

The Commission said the magistrate would attend various parties during which invitees would include political party members and in the case of her own birthday party, a politician who was part of a case she presided. This alone made it incumbent on her to anticipate that the presence of such people compromised her.

The Commission also noted that interviews the magistrate gave to three separate magazines between 2003 and 2008 had portrayed her as seeking the public’s favour.

But the Commission admonished Scerri Herrera for meeting a witness to the investigation, Greta Gatt, a mutual friend of Caruana Galizia. The three women had attended the same Sixth Form college.

The Commission was stern about the fact that Scerri Herrera had compromised her own personal dignity by entertaining a string of love letters from police inspector Dominic Micallef. Instead of repudiating his advances, she showed the letters to her friend Greta Gatt, who then passed them on to Caruana Galizia, eventually being published on her blog.

The magistrate told the Commission she was “not infatuated” with her suitor, whom Caruana Galizia wrote about saying that the couple had had a long love affair. The commission replied that she should have destroyed the letters instead of passing them on to Gatt.

In its conclusion, the Commission said the judiciary was required to behave in a way that no shadow could be cast on their integrity and personal dignity, or that their independence and impartiality could be placed in doubt.

In a request for comment on the Commission’s findings, justice minister Owen Bonnici said it was “shameful” that the findings had come into the hands of a newspaper. “What was said in that report did not confirm allegations of impropriety. It underlined lifestyle changes that must be upheld by the entire judiciary,” Bonnici said. 

Witnesses in the case included Dr Donatello Frendo, now a magistrate, the disbarred lawyer Patrick Spiteri, former Commissioner of Police John Rizzo, police union chief Inspector Sandro Camilleri, Robert Musumeci, and Daphne Caruana Galizia. Magistrate Scerri Herrera was assisted by lawyer Alex Sciberras.

From 'Plategate' to rebuke

In January 2010, Daphne Caruana Galizia hit out at Magistrate Scerri Herrera in a scathing blogpost that was to start a cycle of vitriol and public humiliation.

It turned out that at a dinner party she hosted a week earlier, Scerri Herrera was said to have gloated about the fact that MaltaToday had got wind of the fact that Caruana Galizia’s husband had filed a police complaint against his wife after she flung plates at him during an argument.

At the time Scerri Herrera was already in a relationship with Robert Musumeci, the Siggiewi mayor who was falling out of favour with the Nationalist Party leadership.

The details of Scerri Herrera’s intimate revelations were relayed to Caruana Galizia by dinner guest Rachel Attard, who had called the blogger from the magistrate’s bathroom on that same night at the dinner party.

The sordid ‘Plategate’ story was published a week later in l-orizzont on Saturday, 30 January, 2010, but on the eve Caruana Galizia started a series of blogs targeting Scerri Herrera: Facebook photos publicly available showed the magistrate letting her hair down at her birthday party, with guests that included politicians from all sides (her brother is the Labour minister José Herrera) and businessmen.

Caruana Galizia also used the love letters she had been given to write on her blog, and later repeated in court, that Scerri Herrera was having an extra marital affair for five years with police inspector Dominic Micallef. She said the magistrate had hidden the letters and given them to a friend – who now turns out to be mutual college friend Greta Gatt.

Caruana Galizia used her blogs to question the suitability of the magistrate.