Proposed judicial reform ‘increases threat to democracy’ – Repubblika

Miguela Xuereb

The government’s proposed reform of the manner members of the judiciary are appointed ultimately fails to serve its purpose since the government will be retaining control of the entire process, civil society NGO Repubblika said on Tuesday.

In a scathing criticism of the reforms the government has proposed to the Venice Commission – which it plans to introduce this month ahead of Parliament’s summer recess – Repubblika said that the government’s bills only implement its commitment to decrease control of judicial appointments at face value.

However, while the judicial appointments committee is ostensibly no longer controlled by the government, the final decision rests with the President, who Repubblika described as effectively an extension of the government’s will.

While another of the proposed reform sets out that the President should be chosen by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, a simple majority will suffice should the first two votes fail to reach this quota.

“This is a sick joke. By way of example and for purely illustrative purposes Robert Abela can decide to appoint Glenn Bedingfield as President. The Opposition would have two opportunities to agree and support the choice. If the Opposition doesn’t agree, Robert Abela can appoint Glenn Bedingfield as President of Malta anyway,” Repubblika said.

Consequently, the NGO maintained, the proposed reforms could not be viewed as an improvement. While the method of appointing the President was not a major issue when the role was purely ceremonial, the reforms would shift more powers from the government to the President, only for the former to retain control over who is appointed to the latter post.

Repubblika also condemned the proposal of a similar “fig leaf for constitutional consensus” on the selection of the Chief Justice, stating that this was just as grievous since the Chief Justice chairs the judicial appointments committee, thus allowing the government to exert influence on this committee as well.

Better methods to select President, Chief Justice exist

The NGO lamented the lack of any public consultation on the reforms, stating that it and many others could have proposed alternative methods through which the President and the Chief Justice could be appointed to ensure their autonomy from the government of the day whilst preventing deadlocks.

Noting that many other democracies have managed such methods, it suggested that the President could be elected in a popular vote, or through an electoral college that extended beyond MPs.

The Chief Justice, on the other hand, could be appointed directly by the judiciary, possibly through a vote taken by magistrates and judges.

“We are therefore concerned that the haste, the lack of consultation and the lack of expert insight into the drawing up of these bills will result in yet another botched job. Our democracy will not be improved by these changes. On the contrary, we are introducing new dangers,” Repubblika said.

Reforms put democracy in greater risk

Through proposed reforms involving the office of the President, it argued, “our democracy will be at an even greater risk than it already is.”

Repubblika lamented that the government ignored the Venice Commission’s invitation to run the bills by it before publishing them, and has also abandoned its promise to call a constitutional convention before introducing such crucial changes.

“And we now sadly expect the President to sign into law new powers for himself, without keeping the public commitment he made to hold a Constitutional Convention where voices from outside Parliament are heard and duly considered,” it said.

Repubblika noted that only Parliament could stop this “constitutional hatchet job,” urging MPs to send the reforms back to the drawing board and insist on proper consultation.

It added that it would be informing the European Commission, the Venice Commission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of its concerns.