Consensus from the toga party: the vote for Consuelo Scerri Herrera

Magistrates have elected a peer to sit on the watchdog that once rebuked her. But inside the judiciary, the court of public opinion counts for little

Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera: she is the second most senior magistrate, but her promotion to judge was held back due to an investigation by the judiciary’s watchdog
Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera: she is the second most senior magistrate, but her promotion to judge was held back due to an investigation by the judiciary’s watchdog

When she was hauled over the coals by a former college friend on social media, Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera was severely punished by the court of public opinion.

Her comeuppance was delivered by the late Daphne Caruana Galizia, in a volley of blogs that alleged lurid details of the magistrate’s life and made a mockery of her birthday party snaps posted on Facebook. The reason? Retribution for Scerri Herrera’s gossip at her own dinner party, that Caruana Galizia had been reported to the police for domestic violence by her husband.

Those allegations eventually became the subject of an investigation by the judiciary’s watchdog, the Commission for the Administration of Justice. No proof was found of some of the sensational allegations that she had flown to Singapore on non-essential work with a companion, or that she had shown favouritism to her partner Robert Musumeci. But she had earned a “rebuke” for having entertained the epistolary advances of a police officer: instead of putting an end to it, she shared the love letters with a college friend, who in turn showed them to Caruana Galizia.

Since that rebuke, Scerri Herrera has been elected by her peers in the Court of Magistrates to take one of the two magistrates’ posts in the same Commission for the Administration of Justice.

And at the heart of this election – she was elected on the ‘first count’ – is the reality behind the doors of the courtroom chambers.

The sister of Labour minister José Herrera, Scerri Herrera was not just elected by the ‘red togas’.

Since 2013, the Labour government has appointed nine magistrates, two judges, and promoted four magistrates to the judiciary. A source says Scerri Herrera was voted in not just by the most recent appointees: Charmaine Galea, Joanne Vella Cuschieri, Joseph Mifsud, Monica Vella, Caroline Farrugia Frendo, Grazio Mercieca, and Yana Micallef Stafrace.

“Seven other magistrates appointed mainly by Nationalist administrations voted for her,” citing Claire Stafrace Zammit, Francesco Depasquale, Josette Demicoli, Neville Camilleri, Natasha Galea Sciberras, Aaron Bugeja, and Donatella Frendo Dimech.

The other elected magistrate to the Commission was Doreen Clarke. Judges Tonio Mallia and Noel Cuschieri were themselves elected by their own peers to sit on the Commission.

“The fact is that Consuelo Scerri Herrera is well respected by her peers,” said the same legal source, who echoed the words of another government spokesperson privy to the election results.

“She endured a lot of allegations which were also untrue. She happens to be one of the best magistrates there are. She is efficient, well-read, and is known to help her colleagues a lot.”

Another legal source who has worked inside her courtroom agreed. “She cuts a commanding figure inside the courtroom. She is well-respected. Her judgements are readable and legally sound.” Court reporters who follow her work agree with this description.

But the allegations of impropriety against her stuck. In the aftermath of ‘Plategate’ (the domestic violence report was allegedly filed after Caruana Galizia threw plates at her husband), the Malta Independent columnist’s blog soared to nationwide notoriety. Scerri Herrera tried to scare off the audacious Caruana Galizia with libel action but later retracted. When Labour was elected in 2013 she was not promoted to a judge’s post, because she was still under investigation by the Commission for the Administration of Justice.

But when recently the judicial appointments commission cleared her for promotion, she was kept behind, ostensibly because senior judges felt it was not yet time for the appointment.

Yet change is in the air.

“She will be promoted to judge surely once Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri retires,” one government source surmised. Camilleri, a former Attorney General appointed to the judiciary in 2010 by the Nationalist administration, recently failed to secure himself a post at the General Court of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

As more members of the judiciary reach retirement age, more ‘Labour picks’ can be expected to make the grade. Almost all of the recent appointments, including those mandated by the commission which green-lights the nominees, were deliberate and intended to even out the ‘blue togas’. Toni Abela was a former Labour deputy leader, Wenzu Mintoff a former Labour Whip, candidate and party official, Joanne Vella Cuschieri a former candidate, Monika Vella a former Labour mayor, Joseph Mifsud a former party official, and several others close to the party establishment. This in a court of 21 judges and 22 magistrates.

The legal source who spoke highly of Scerri Herrera’s capabilities claims the red-blue consensus to elect her to the Commission for the Administration of Justice shows that public opinion about her does not amount to a hill of beans.

“It’s a consensus that recognises her merit, irrespective of anybody’s conceited opinion, both within and outside the judiciary.”

At 65, Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri will retire this year. That means Labour will be appointing a successor who is sure to hail from a Labour-friendly background. And if it’s an ‘outsider’ candidate, like Camilleri was, he will probably be less vocal than the sitting Chief Justice has been about the Labour government’s problems with governance and the rule of law.

More in National

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition