By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A Supreme Court judge has resigned and a High Court judge is also expected to step down in the wake of a report that accused them of damaging the administration of justice in a scandal that has rocked public confidence in the legal system.
An unprecedented constitutional crisis had loomed after the two judges were strongly rebuked by the chief justice for their roles in a drink-drive case in which a Dublin architect, who killed a woman, was freed from jail after serving a year of a four-year sentence.
The judges had been facing possible impeachment proceedings before the Dail and the Seanad — the only way they could be sacked.
No judge has ever been impeached in Ireland and the last time it happened in Britain was in 1830.
It is the first time the judiciary has been tainted by scandal in the recent spate of sleaze controversies that have hit the pillars of the establishment, bringing disgrace to businessmen, politicians, churchmen, banker and teachers.
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Normally, judges have been called in to oversee clean-ups and investigations following the scandals. Previously, there had been no evidence that the mainly male and middle-class judges were not impartial and treated all citizens equally.
The row is certain to lead to demands for more accountability from judges and an examination of their appointment by politicians. There is supposed to be a complete constitutional separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.
Both judges had been embroiled in the early release from prison of Philip Sheedy, who had been given four years for drunk driving in 1996 after his car killed a mother of two.
He was released last November after serving just a year but has since voluntarily gone back to prison to serve the balance of his sentence.
Supreme Court Judge Hugh O’Flaherty, 60, who had been tipped as a future chief justice, was the first to resign from his £94,952-a-year job.
In a dramatic U-turn, O’Flaherty decided to hand in his seal of office to President Mary McAleese less than 24 hours after he had gone on television to say he would not resign and would "face whatever has to be faced" because he had done nothing wrong.
The High Court’s Cyril Kelly, 47, has yet to make a statement on the matter but is also expected to resign.
The judges had faced possible impeachment after a damning report from the chief justice, Liam Hamilton, who investigated the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Sheedy’s freeing.
While Hamilton’s report did not detail why, it revealed Sheedy had received preferential treatment as a result of Kelly’s actions.
O’Flaherty, who had no direct connection with the original Sheedy hearing or appeal, gave advice to a sister of Sheedy when he met her with a friend on the road outside his Dublin 4 home.
He also called an official responsible for listing cases in the Circuit Court to his chambers. The case was subsequently listed for appeal.
Hamilton described O’Flaherty’s conduct as "inappropriate and unwise," though he accepted his involvement was grounded in a spirit of "humanitarian interest."
In his resignation statement, O’Flaherty said: "The appearance of detachment must be the most important thing for a judge and there cannot be a scintilla of suspicion to call in question his impartiality. The highest duty of a judge is impartiality as well as the appearance of impartiality."
He still maintained he had done nothing wrong but accepted that what he did was open to misinterpretation.
Hamilton’s criticism of Kelly was much stronger and he concluded that the judge failed to conduct the appeal "in a manner befitting a judge."
Sheedy’s appeal hearing had only lasted minutes and was based on out-of-date reports on his mental condition. The chief justice said a suggestion by Kelly to Sheedy’s lawyer, after the appeal had been heard, that a new psychiatric report be prepared and put in the file, "was manifestly improper."
Hamilton said Kelly’s hearing of the appeal was "wrong" and "mistaken" and his handling of the matter "compromised the administration of justice."
Justice Minister John O’Donoghue is to report to the Dail this week on the involvement of court officials in the scandal.