What are Italians being asked to vote on in Sunday’s ‘justice referendum’?

On June 12th, Italian citizens will cast their ballots in a referendum proposing reforms to Italy's justice system - but exactly what issues are they voting on?

Italians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on reforms to Italy's justice system.
Italians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on reforms to Italy's justice system. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Italians have received colourful voting cards in the mail ahead of a referendum in the country this weekend – though many say the explanations written within have left them none the wiser about the issues they’ll be voting on.

As a result, readers of The Local who received these cards have been in touch to ask for an explanation.

From 7am until 11pm on Sunday, Italians of voting age will head to the polls to make their voices heard in the referendum giustizia, or ‘justice referendum’.

There are five reforms on the table, each of which proposes to repeal an existing law or rule in Italy. That means a ‘no’ is a vote to maintain the status quo, while a check in the ‘yes’ box says you’re in favour of scrapping the current system.

For a ‘yes’ result to be valid, a quorum of 50 percent plus one of the Italian electorate must have voted – which means turnout is key.

Each of the five proposals comes with a different colour ballot card: red, orange, yellow, grey and green.

The proposals are being voted on separately, so it’s not unlikely that some reforms will be approved and others rejected. But what issues are actually up for discussion?

Here’s our guide to the referendum giustizia.

1. Repealing the ‘Severino Law’ (red card)

Under the Severino Law, which came into force at the start of 2013, any politician in Italy who is convicted of a certain type of crime and is sentenced to at least two years in prison is banned from holding public office for at least six years.

To date, the law’s most high profile application has been in ejecting Silvio Berlusconi from the Italian senate following his 2012 conviction for tax fraud.

If the Severino Law is repealed, it will be up to individual judges to decide on a case by case basis whether a convicted politician should be allowed see out their mandate or run for office – as was previously the case up until 2013.

Those in favour of maintaining the law argue that it remains an important weapon in Italy’s fight against corruption and that scrapping it would allow politicians convicted of serious crimes to act with impunity.

Silvio Berlusconi was ejected from the Italian senate under the Severino Law in 2013 following a conviction for tax fraud.
Silvio Berlusconi was ejected from the Italian senate under the Severino Law in 2013 following a conviction for tax fraud. Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

Others say the law unfairly denies some people the presumption of innocence; and unusually, groups on both ends of political spectrum have come out in favour of its abolition.

Representatives of both the far-right League party (who, along with the libertarian Radical Party, fought for the referendum to be held in the first place) and the Socialist Party say the fact that the ban automatically applies to local and regional (but not national) politicians even if their conviction is subsequently overturned makes the law fundamentally flawed.

The socialist newspaper Avanti! cited the case of Mimmo Lucano, a pro-refugee mayor who in 2021 received a 13-year prison sentence for abetting illegal immigration. According to a recent article on the Global Anticorruption Blog, even if Lucano is acquitted on appeal, his ban on running for office will remain in place for eight years.

READ ALSO: More judges, faster trials: Italy approves major overhaul of criminal justice system

2. Softening pre-trial detention (orange card)

Accused criminals awaiting trial in Italy can be placed under house arrest or put in jail for a wide range of reasons, including if the suspect is perceived to be a flight risk, is likely to ‘contaminate’ the evidence against them, or is at risk of repeating the same offence before they stand trial.

It’s on this last point – pre-trial detention based on the likelihood of the suspect’s reoffending – that the referendum proposes the law be softened, by allowing most people who fall into this category to remain at liberty until the trial is over.

A view of the Sant Anna prison in Modena, Emilia-Romagna.

A view of the Sant Anna prison in Modena, Emilia-Romagna. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP.

Those in favour of a ‘yes’ vote argue that the reform would ease pressure on Italy’s overcrowded prison system, and that the presumption of freedom would be granted only to suspects accused of non-violent offences, such as illegal party financing.

Those who argue that the law should remain as it is say it’s already lenient enough, providing for pre-trial imprisonment for non-violent offences only when they carry a sentence of at least five years.

3. Career separation for judges and prosecutors (yellow card)

Under the current rules in Italy, it’s possible for public prosecutors and judges to switch back and forth between the two roles multiple times (up to four) over the course of an individual’s career.

This reform proposes to put an end to this revolving door, requiring people to pick one of the two professions at the start of their career and stick with it for the duration.

READ ALSO: Italy passes law to stop criminals profiting from slow-paced justice system

Those in support of the reform say it’s healthy to have a clear separation between the fundamentally different roles of arguing cases and deciding them.

Those against say this is a constitutional matter, not one to be decided in a referendum; that it wouldn’t make any real difference, as the professions are so closely intertwined; and that a reform proposed by Justice Minister Marta Cartabia would resolve the issue anyway (though the Cartabia reform would in fact allow one career switch, ten years in).

4. Letting lawyers and professors evaluate judges (grey card)

Every four years in Italy, judges are assessed by the members of the High Council of the Judiciary (Consiglio superiore della magistratura, or Csm), the self-governing body of Italy’s judiciary.

The Csm reviews the judge’s record and makes decisions on their career progression based on recommendations from two other bodies: the Supreme Court’s judicial board (Consiglio direttivo della Corte di Cassazione) and the judicial councils (Consigli giudiziari) at each court of appeal.

Italy's Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione) in Rome.

Italy’s Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione) in Rome. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Lawyers and professors can be members of these bodies, but currently, they have no say when it comes to evaluating judges. This reform proposes to give these council ‘lay members’ the right to weigh in on the process.

Proponents of the proposal say the change would make the process more democratic and objective; critics say it’s not a good idea to allow lawyers to grade judges who could be deciding their cases.

5. Scrapping signatures to apply to the Csm (green card)

If you want to put yourself forward to be elected as a councillor on the Csm, you first need to gather 25 signatures in favour of your candidacy. This last reform proposes to abolish that requirement.

Those in favour say it will make the process less political; those against, that it won’t make a discernible difference or that the change is already being proposed in Cartabia’s reform.

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Italian rivals pitch abroad in trilingual vote videos

Days after Italy's far-right leader made a multilingual appeal to foreign commentators to take her seriously, her main rival in September elections issued his own tit-for-tat video Saturday condemning her record.

Italian rivals pitch abroad in trilingual vote videos

Former prime minister Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, declared his pro-European credentials in a video in English, French and Spanish, while deriding the euroscepticism of Italy’s right-wing parties.

It echoes the trilingual video published this week by Giorgia Meloni, tipped to take power in the eurozone’s third largest economy next month, in which she sought to distance her Brothers of Italy party from its post-fascist roots.

“We will keep fighting to convince Italians to vote for us and not for them, to vote for an Italy that will be in the heart of Europe,” Letta said in English.

His party and Meloni’s are neck-and-neck in opinion polls ahead of September 25 elections, both with around 23 percent of support.

But Italy’s political system favours coalitions, and while Meloni is part of an alliance with ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi and anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini, Letta has struggled to unite a fractured centre-left.

Speaking in French perfected in six years as a dean at Sciences Po university in Paris, Letta emphasised European solidarity, from which Italy is currently benefiting to the tune of almost 200 billion euros ($205 billion) in
post-pandemic recovery funds.

“We need a strong Europe, we need a Europe of health, a Europe of solidarity. And we can only do that if there is no nationalism inside European countries,” he said.

He condemned the veto that he said right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor “Orban — friends and allies of the Italian right — is using every time he can (to) harm Europe”.

In Spanish, Letta highlighted Meloni’s ties with Spain’s far-right party Vox, at whose rally she spoke earlier this summer, railing at the top of her voice against “LGBT lobbies”, Islamist violence, EU bureaucracy and mass

In English, he condemned the economic legacy of Berlusconi, a three-time premier who left office in 2011 as Italy was on the brink of economic meltdown, but still leads his Forza Italia party.

Letta’s programme includes a focus on green issues — he intends to tour Italy in an electric-powered bus — and young people, but he has made beating Meloni a key plank of his campaign.

Meloni insisted in her video that fascism was in the past, a claim greeted with scepticism given her party still uses the logo of a flame used by the Italian Social Movement set up by supporters of fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

In a joint manifesto published this week, Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini committed themselves to the EU but called for changes to its budgetary rules — and raised the prospect of renegotiating the pandemic recovery plan.

Elections were triggered by the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government last month, and are occurring against a backdrop of soaring inflation, a potential winter energy crisis and global uncertainty sparked by
the Ukraine war.