Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Should Hugh O’Flaherty use a media soapbox to engage in political advocacy?

Today’s edition of the Irish Independent features a front page banner proclaiming that ‘Hugh O’Flaherty Joins the Independent’. O’Flaherty is a former justice of the Irish Supreme Court who resigned abruptly in 1999.

It has not been customary for a former judge of any Irish court to climb onto a political soapbox after ceasing to be a judge, or even to revert to court advocacy. Has that not been the argument to justify paying them such absurdly high salaries and exceptionally generous retirement packages?

The decision of Hugh O’Flaherty to peddle his political sound-bites through the Fourth Estate is extraordinary. He resigned abruptly from the Supreme Court because interventions he had made with respect to a the Philip Sheedy case were deemed by the Chief Justice to be possibly open to misinterpretation and could therefore potentially damage the administration of justice and the integrity of judicial process.

Mr Sheedy, an architect,  was convicted following the death of Anne Ryan in a fatal road accident near Tallaght in 1996. He had been driving a recently acquired high-performance sports car while intoxicated.  He was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving in the Dublin Circuit Court presided over by Mr Justice Cyril KellyMr Justice Matthews had been asked by Kelly to preside over the sentencing of Sheedy who applied a four-year sentence with leave to apply for a review of the sentence after two years in October 1999. 

Sheedy was initially jailed in Mountjoy Prison for the first six months and then moved to an open prison, Shelton Abbey.  While at the open prison he was visited by his friend Joe Burke, a former building contractor and Fianna Fáil county councillor and confidante of Bertie Ahern, who had loaned Ahern £3,500. Sheedy had been employed by Burke as an architectural adviser in J & H Burke Enterprises Limited.

Ahern approached Justice Minister John O’Donoghue to enquire in July 1998 if Sheedy could be granted day release from prison but this request was rejected. 

O’Flaherty’s intervention occurred after me apparently casually met Sheedy’s sister in October 1998 and he invited the County Registrar to his Supreme Court chambers to have the Sheedy case relisted, as an application to have the review date vacated was granted by the sentencing judge on 6 November 1997.

Following O’Flaherty’s intervention Mr Justice Kelly (not the Jusge Matthews who sentenced Sheedy)  reviewed Sheedy’s sentence on 12 November 1998  The remainder of the sentence was remitted but neither the Gardaí or the Director of Public Prosecutions were told about the review or that Sheedy had been released from jail.

The DPP challenged Kelly’s decision in February 1999 at which time Sheedy had voluntarily returned to prison. O’Donoghue asked the Chief Justice to investigate the case whose finding was that Kelly’s handling of the Sheedy case and O’Flaherty’s intervention compromised the administration of justice. Both Kelly and the County Registrar resigned their positions which at that time was that of High Court judge in the case of Kelly.

Mr Flaherty seems to have abandoned his desire in 1999 for privacy but is the custom of former judges keeping their personal views private not better practice for the sake of judicial independence?

If not, where is this process heading? Will judges next feature in television advertisements climbing out of kitchen cupboards on their hands and knees to flog the virtue of their journalistic scoops?

The purpose of the Constitution is to define the nation and its boundaries values, one of the most cherished of which is the integrity and independence of the judiciary. That principle ought to have precedence over the ramblings of a former judge about political decisions if the entire judicial system is not to degenerate into a television soap opera based on three-minute sound bites by wannabe actors.

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