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The Irish Times view on Seámus Woulfe: a question of judgment

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For Supreme Court judge Seámus Woulfe, the most comforting line – the line that could salvage a judicial career that had barely even begun – appears in the penultimate paragraph of the report into his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August. There, former chief justice Susan Denham writes that, based on the evidence and submissions she received, Woulfe “did nothing involving impropriety such as would justify calls for his resignation from office”. In Denham’s view, such a step would be “unjust and disproportionate”.

Yet the preceding 28 pages, which lucidly chronicle circumstances around the August 19th event and the former attorney general’s dealings with Denham’s review, raise serious questions about Woulfe’s judgment and his understanding of his role and responsibilities as a senior judge.

Denham confirms what has been widely accepted from the outset: that Woulfe broke no law. She accepts that he relied in good faith on assurances from organisers of the event that it was in compliance with Covid-19 regulations. His attendance did not breach the principle of the separation of powers, she concludes. A judge’s responsibilities go wider than adhering to laws and rules, however. If public trust in the rule of law and the courts is to be maintained, judges must not only act appropriately but ensure they do nothing that might appear inappropriate. The special privileges they enjoy come with special responsibilities that go beyond those of ordinary citizens.

Woulfe approached the Denham review process in a highly legalistic fashion – hiring a lawyer, commissioning an engineers’ report of the dining room in Clifden and even arguing that the relevant burden of proof for Denham’s review should be that of beyond a reasonable doubt (she rejected that). When asked by Denham whether he should have sought guidance from colleagues in relation to the dinner, he said that would be “ridiculous” (Denham disagreed). When pressed on the position of a judge in accepting various reassurances he had received, Woulfe replied that his situation was the same as for any “ordinary citizen”. On two occasions, when asked about the negative perception his actions could give rise to, he veered into criticism of the media.

In Denham’s view, Woulfe was “not sufficiently vigilant” in not considering whether it was a good idea for a Supreme Court judge to attend “a celebratory dinner, in a hotel in a public place, at a time of pandemic”. That’s putting it mildly. The issue was never about the law; it was about the spirit of the restrictions and the need to ensure public buy-in at a time of national crisis. That effort was severely damaged by the Clifden dinner.

The court has said it will now begin an informal “resolution process”, as recommended in the report. In the interests of public trust in the judiciary, the outcome should be made public.

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