The third proposed amendment to the Constitution debated in Parliament in as many days – governing the way judges or magistrates may be removed for office – hit a stumbling block as opposition MPs expressed reservations about the way the law was structured.
The opposition had previously expressed its intention to vote against the two other Constitutional amendments – one concerning the appointment of the President, the other on the way members of the judiciary are appointed – over a proposed anti-deadlock mechanism concerning the way the President and Chief Justice are appointed. While both should be appointed through a parliamentary majority of at least two-thirds, an absolute majority of MPs will suffice after two unsuccessful attempts, and the bills do not explicitly require nominating a new candidate after an unsuccessful vote.
On this occasion, Nationalist Party MP Chris Said noted that the judiciary was opposed to the reforms and wished to know the reason why.
Bill ‘100% in line’ with Venice Commission recommendations
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis made his frustration clear as he wound up debate.
“This is a bill which is 100% in line with what the Venice Commission is saying,” he said, referring to the Council of Europe body whose damning report on Malta helped bring about the proposed reforms.
“For months, if not years, we have had the opposition tell us to meet the Venice Commission and do what it tells us to do.”
As had happened in the first two cases, opposition whip Robert Cutajar said that while opposition MPs would vote against the bill at this stage, it was doing so with the aim of finding a workable solution by the time the bill faces a third and final vote. Since it amends the Constitution – though it also amends the Commission for the Administration of Justice Act – the bill will require a two-thirds parliamentary majority to pass.
Depoliticising removal of judges or magistrates
The bill aims to ensure that the removal of judges and magistrates is made “by a body which is not political and to provide for an appeal from decisions of the Commissions for the Administration of Justice.” Presently, members of the judiciary may only be removed by Parliament, with a two-thirds majority required.
But Said noted that the judiciary had reservations about removing MPs from the equation when it came to their potential removal.
Fellow PN MP Carm Mifsud Bonnici warned that the model proposed in the bill may lead to members of the judiciary filing legal challenges before the Constitutional Court, stating that this would cause great complications.
However, Zammit Lewis noted that it was clear that the present system had failed, as may be seen in past cases where members of the judiciary faced a parliamentary vote.
Past cases include the failed impeachment of judge Anton Depasquale, for which a motion had been presented in 1995. The vote took place on 2001, but failed to achieve the required two-thirds on party lines, with the Labour opposition voting against it citing procedural rules. Depasquale had objected to the setting up of the Commission for the Administration of Justice in 1994, and did not attend court for 7 years in protest.
Impeachment proceedings against disgraced Chief Justice Noel Arrigo and judge Patrick Vella – who were later convicted of accepting bribes – fell through after their resignation. An impeachment motion against judge Lino Farrugia Sacco in 2014 also failed to produce results, with the judge retiring upon reaching the age of 65 before government allowed the motion to be debated.