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Judging a judge by his cover

Some people have this certain aura of gravitas that when they speak you just want to stop and listen. These people are rare, and possibly becoming even rarer.

This comes to mind every time I attend a hearing of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. There are always some 15-odd board members sitting around a huge oval table but when Giovanni Bonello speaks up, there’s a sudden hush in the air and everyone stills to listen to the soft-spoken voice coming out from under those walrus-like moustaches.

Every single word is well thought-out in the short deliveries of the former judge of the European Court of Human Rights. By the time he’s done, you feel you’ve been passed on a little bit of his wisdom.

I’m trying to think of other public figures, sage in spirit. Perhaps the late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott inspired a similar sense of respect for his views. As with Dr Bonello, you’d want to listen to whatever Fr Peter had to say because his angle was unwaveringly holistic. His reflections never left a stone unturned and explored all possible ways of looking at an issue, which left you with a sense of reassurance that all knowledge was being tapped into in the search for an answer.

This is not merely about intelligence. For example, Edward de Bono (doctor, author, and according to Wikipedia, also an inventor and consultant), for all his thinking caps and lateral opinions, is not one to inspire such wisdom.

Wise people have a particular combination of character traits: foresighted but down-to-earth; clever but with several ounces of compassion; confident but not too full of themselves; and possessing a sense of humour and the ability not to take themselves too seriously.

People like these make optimal judges. A good judge must be patient, wise, courageous, firm, incorruptible and with the gifts of empathy and insight. But the problem in this island of ours is that they are few and far between. A couple of times in my life, I found myself at a dinner table with people in high judicial positions.

Both times I was gripped with a sense of trepidation. As I observed their audacious behaviour, listened in to their swearing and careless gossip and complaints about their income, I realised these were people with no concept of the dignity of their position. A judge outside the courtroom is still a judge. And this means that their behaviour is constanly under a lens.

A judge at a dinner party needs to watch what to say, to whom he speaks to, how much drink he has, and what sort of small talk he makes.

A judge needs to weigh his words whenever he speaks in public – whether it is an official or an unofficial event.

There is no room for a judge to be arrogant. Rather he needs to word his thoughts with caution because at the end of the day he is chosen to ensure justice and fight off the misuse of power.

Therefore in his each and every utternace a member of the judiciary has to be an example to the rest of us.

Theirs is a twenty-four seven job. Which is why I believe that their social life must literally die.

Their social commitments have to be downsized to the bare minimum. It’s not that they ought to turn into recluses or hermits, but they need to avoid situations where their position of high integrity can be jeopardised.

Judges should not seek to be in the limelight, but they should only seek to study human behaviour.

We all follow the scripts of life. The more a judge is familiar with human patterns, the more he can can pass his judgements wisely.

It is perhaps the only time where the old adage ‘do not judge a book by its cover’ should not apply. As a society our expectations of judges should be sky high. A judge has to be judged on his worth, but unlike a book, he’s also got to be judged by his cover.

If for some reason or other this cover gets blotted – then we have every reason to call for their resignation.

My worries are aplenty: is this island drained of men and women who are sage and limpid and not power-hungry? Is it simply a matter that the best ones are not enticed because of the lacklustre financial packet? What happens to a society which loses faith in its courts?

Judges are our ultimate protectors. They need to inspire confidence in their ability and sense of justice. If for the briefest of seconds and minutest of reasons they fail to do that, then they have to face the consequences of their choices. And in a final act of respect towards society, retire into obscurity.

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