Judicial Integrity - A shaky ideal

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Méabh de Courcy Mac Donnell examines the difficulties of ensuring judicial integrity in our courts.

Judicial Integrity should be a relatively straightforward concept. According to the United Nations, we can break it down to simply mean the judiciary’s ability to resist corruption, coupled with their respect for “the core values of independence, impartiality, personal integrity, propriety, equality, competence and diligence”. On face value, these seem to be reasonable expectations of any functioning judicial system. In practice, however, a myriad of difficulties arise that can threaten their integrity, making it a seemingly difficult feat to achieve.

Problems threatening judicial integrity can often stem from the system itself - a good illustration of this is the American process of appointing Supreme Court judges. When a vacancy arises in the US Supreme Court, the President nominates a candidate, and the Senate then approves this candidate. While this system remained apolitical for years, with presidents such as John F. Kennedy appointing a conservative judge, or George W. Bush appointing a liberal judge, it is becoming more and more influenced by party politics. In fact, since 2010 all judges nominated by Republicans have held conservative views, while all those nominated by Democrats have held liberal views. Far from epitomising independence and impartiality, the highest court of the US has consequently become embroiled in all the scandal and controversy of the politics of the day. Never was this more apparent than in Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s reputation as one of the most conservative judges in his jurisdiction, coupled with numerous allegations of sexual assault, made his entire appointment process highly contentious. In the Senate, the issue virtually became Republican versus Democrat.

This political split was highlighted by the recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, the first judge ever confirmed to the Court without any bi-partisan support. Again, Coney Barrett’s ultra-conservative outlook caused concern, adding fuel to the fire in an already explosive presidential campaign. Commentators have noted Coney Barrett’s confirmation could potentially influence the upcoming election. Republicans may feel secure in having a Senate and Supreme Court majority, and be less likely to vote, however conversely, Democrats may be spurred on to turn out in higher numbers. Conservatives who approve of Coney Barrett, (particularly Evangelicals whose vote is becoming increasingly important), may be reassured by this appointment and encouraged to vote Republican. Far from remaining independent of politics, therefore, it is quite clear that the judiciary is being utilised as a weapon in this presidential campaign. The result of this is increasing disillusionment and cynicism of the judiciary’s impartiality.

The UN also calls for equality. Again, a quick look to the United States highlights why this is so integral to any judicial system. The Black Lives Matter movement has been greatly exacerbated by the black community’s lack of access to justice. The courts have failed Black citizens over and over again, including the failure to prosecute in cases of police brutality, and disparities in sentencing between People of Colour and White people. While the judicial system isn’t the full extent of the issue, there is no doubt that it significantly contributes to the systematic racism of the country. 

So how does Ireland measure up? The American example provides a good illustration of why it is so important to ensure integrity in the actual system, but the UN values also make reference to personal traits that fall to the responsibility of the judge as an individual, rather than the system as a whole. These values came into play recently in the infamous “Golfgate” incident, when an Oireachtas golf event openly flouted Covid-19 restrictions. The attendance of Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe caused public outcry. He has since undergone a review by the Former Chief Justice Denham, which strongly criticised his actions but stopped short of calling for his resignation. A further meeting has been scheduled with the current Chief Justice Clarke, and it remains to be seen whether or not further action will be taken. Regardless of the outcome, the controversy has left a feeling of double standards among the general public, with the phrase “one rule for them and one rule for us” aptly summing up the mood. This begs the question; if a Supreme Court judge won’t follow the law, how can he expect people’s respect when he applies it? 

This event neatly depicts just how easy it is to undermine judicial integrity; a single slip-up can shake public confidence in the judiciary, but in order for a judicial system to be effective there must be a high level of trust from the general public. Therefore, a seemingly simple ideal is shown to be difficult to achieve in reality. Not only does the system have to safeguard integrity, but it is also reliant on each and every judge to be an upstanding and model citizen.