PN set to vote down judicial appointment reform, but open to solution

The same anti-deadlock mechanism at the heart of political disagreement on a proposed reform on the way the President is appointed might also sink a second proposed constitutional amendment: one reforming the appointment of members of the judiciary.

The proposed bill would change the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee to ensure that most of its members are members of the judiciary, led by the Chief Justice. The committee is tasked with recommending candidates to fill vacancies in the judiciary, and according to the proposed bill, the President would be constrained to choose among the recommended candidates.

But the bill also changes the method through which the Chief Justice is appointed, introducing a method identical to the proposed method for appointing the President. The Chief Justice should be chosen through a two-thirds parliamentary majority, but if the first two votes fail, the approval of an absolute majority of MPs should be enough. The amendment does not require the government to nominate a different candidate if Parliament rejects them; it simply states that new candidates “may be nominated before the taking of the second vote.”

Consequently, Nationalist MPs have signalled their intention to vote against the second constitutional amendment for the same reason, as signalled by the party’s justice spokesman Jason Azzopardi.

However, Azzopardi’s colleagues Chris Said and Carm Mifsud Bonnici both outlined possible solutions to the impasse, suggesting that a compromise may be ironed out when the bill is sent to committee. While a simple majority will be enough for the bill to pass at this stage, a two-thirds majority will be required at its third and final reading since the bill amends the Constitution.

PN still the Anti-Reform party – Bedingfield

This decision was strongly condemned by government whip Glenn Bedingfield, who said that he could not understand the opposition’s attitude in the face of the “historic” reforms the government was presenting in Parliament.

The MP said that while such reforms were long described as necessary, a Labour government was required to actually propose them. The opposition not only failed to introduce reforms, but was now trying to prevent the government from doing so, he argued.

Bedingfield went on to list individual measures included in the proposed reform, each time exclaiming that this was what PN MPs were against, before insisting that the party remained consistent only on one matter.

He noted that the PN had been established in the 19th century as the Anti-Reform Party, before quipping that “after 140 years, they are still against reform; they have stuck to their roots.”

Various solutions exist – Said

On his part, the PN’s spokesman on constitutional reform Chris Said emphasised that the party was not opposed to the bill in principle. Much of it, he pointed out, reflected what had been discussed by the steering committee on constitutional reform he forms part of as one of the PN’s three representatives.

He said that the party had insisted that as the Chief Justice was being granted additional power, candidates should require a two-thirds parliamentary majority at all times.

Though he emphasised that he did not doubt the good intentions behind the bill, he insisted that it could be abused by a government acting in bad faith, which would propose candidates which it knew would not be approved before nominating whoever it wanted in the third vote.

Said then noted that various solutions could be implemented, including the appointment of a deputy chief justice – also approved by a two-thirds vote – who would be acting Chief Justice until Parliament reaches an agreement. On Monday, he had suggested a similar solution on the appointment of the President.

Alternatively, the PN MP added, the most senior judge could automatically be made acting chief justice until a suitable candidate is approved.

Fellow PN MP Carm Mifsud Bonnici also noted that other options include electing Chief Justices through a popular vote, or through a vote among sitting members of the judiciary.

‘We are not far apart’ – Zammit Lewis

As he wound up debate, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis expressed his appreciation for the contributions made by Said and Mifsud Bonnici, stating that “they give me hope that an agreement will ultimately be reached on this amendment.” He was less appreciative of Azzopardi’s more combative speech.

“I feel that we are not far apart,” the minister said. “We are looking at the same painting, but disagree on a small detail in the corner.”