Fine Gael intent on rewarding Shane Ross for a career spent disparaging the judiciary

Transport Minister Shane Ross has spent years disparaging the judiciary and Fine Gael, in government, is about to reward those efforts with the enactment of his flawed judicial appointments bill.

Mr Ross’ crusade to reform judicial appointments is not a new phenomenon. He has been banging the same drum for years.

Back in 2014, when he published a Bill seeking to amend the constitution and set up a new judicial appointments council, he was adamant the judiciary should have no role in any selection process.

“There would be no room in that judicial appointments council for any judges because the Bar Council and the entire legal profession is a home for insiders. There would be no room for any judges or any ex officio legal representatives from the Law Society of Ireland or the Bar Council but rather candidates would be drawn from a broad spectrum of society,” he told the Dáil.

So, judges, barristers and solicitors – the very people who spend their working lives in courts – would be debarred from having any role in the selection of the judges.

Long before Brexiteers like British MP Michael Gove were claiming that “people have had enough of experts”, Mr Ross was deriding specialist knowledge. According to him, judges, barristers and solicitors, despite knowing most about the court system, were sullied by virtue of their professions. Practising the law made them insiders and insiders should not be trusted. They are toxic.

Anyone who thought Mr Ross’ views would mellow once he entered government was wrong. In the past year alone he has claimed that a new judicial appointment system is required to “reform the whole way the judiciary behaves”, accused judges of forgetting their oaths when they enter office and alleged the judiciary lead a “charmed life” from within their “protected citadel”.

Comments like this from a sitting Minister, which can only serve to undermine public confidence in the administration of justice, are unprecedented and betray a complete disregard for the separation of powers. Ask Mr Ross to point to any evidence of bias on the part of the judiciary, or any nakedly political decisions that suggest they’re in hock to their alleged political paymasters, and he comes up blank.

Yet, he persists with his incendiary rhetoric, enabled by his enfeebled Fine Gael cabinet colleagues, who seem to think that an erosion of public faith in the administration of justice is a price worth paying so that this government can stumble on.

Last year, when Mr Ross alleged that judges “might forget their oath of office”, to administer justice without fear or favour, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny distanced himself from the remarks.

“I do not accept that members of the judiciary would forget their judicial oath in respect of decisions that they make. In that respect I dissociate myself from the remarks of Minister Ross,” he said.

That was the extent of the slap down. Mr Ross was never sanctioned and has continued to mouth off, about judges and the ubiquitous “insiders” in the legal profession, at every available opportunity.

Not content with maligning the judiciary, Mr Ross has misrepresented them, suggesting that “there has always been massive resistance to change” from within their ranks.

In reality, a 2014 committee, chaired by Chief Justice Susan Denham, was highly critical of the current “demonstrably deficient” appointment system, while Ms Denham has also repeatedly called for the introduction of a judicial council – to establish best practice for the education, support and training of judges and a structure to deal with complaints about judges.

But, why let facts get in the way of a good rant – especially when Mr Ross is about to be rewarded with his reforms of the judicial appointment system being green-lighted by government.

While Mr Ross’ position has evolved somewhat, in that he will now hold his nose and countenance some members of the judiciary being involved in the new selection process, he is adamant that there should be a lay majority on any new body.

Bizarrely, there is no room on his new commission for the President of the Circuit Court or the President of the District Court, while those who know most about the operation of the courts and what is required of a judge are relegated to a minority position.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with best practice when it comes to the administration of justice and everything to do with Shane Ross’ mistrust of “insiders” in the legal system whom, he believes, will find some way to nominate their cronies if given the opportunity.

As Mr Ross’ dream of the enactment of a new judicial appointments bill inches ever closer, it is difficult to cite any issue in his transport brief that he has championed with similar passion and enthusiasm.

In fact, it’s sometimes hard to remember that he’s actually the Transport Minister – and not just the Minister for Bashing the Judiciary.

After a year in office, it’s impossible to point to even one reform, or achievement, that Mr Ross has attained in Transport, but easy to point to his many failures. Included in these is the fact that Dublin recently dropped out of the top 20 cycle-friendly cities in the world while a record number of cyclists have died on our roads already this year.

If Mr Ross spent even a fraction of the time he devotes to judicial appointments on his actual brief, imagine what could be achieved.