One of my middle-of-the-night anxieties involves the degree of presumption I’m revealing in even attempting to comment on a judge’s career. After all, what would I know? Hell, I’ve only ever sat in the public gallery of a court!
So I was pleased to hear an appraisal of the retiring Chief Justice Murray Gleeson on Radio National’s Law Report the other morning by George Williams, from the Law School of UNSW. This is how Williams summed up the Chief Justice’s career
George Williams: I think you need to look at his role on the court in two different ways: one is as a judge, one amongst seven, and as a judge he’s well-known for writing judgments that are concise, that are direct, that really do get to the nub of the question of law, and he has a very strong reputation as being one of the leaders of the court over the last decade. As a Chief Justice, you can look at his public role, he’s someone who’s spoken strongly on behalf of important legal principles, he’s defended the court, and he’s been prepared to get involved in the media in discussing some of those issues.
Where he perhaps hasn’t had the same impact is perhaps changing the way the court operates internally. He’s been a good administrator, but we don’t have a court that’s perhaps made leaps and bounds in terms of moving towards more of a joint judgment system like the United States. It’s a court very similar to the court he inherited, and he hasn’t been a reformer in terms of changing those basic practices.
How do these criteria stack up with Judge Willis?
1. The quality of his judgments. Well, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that his judgments were well thought through. Certainly he showed independence of thought- he was quite happy to go out on a limb and take a different stance from his brother judges- in fact, I suspect that he revelled in so doing.
2. Public role- speaking out on behalf of important legal principles. Certainly he was outspoken, but were they important legal principles or just a form of point-scoring? The scrutiny of the actions of public officers was important- but was it HIS role to do this? His stance on Aborigines- at a surface level contradictory, but on deeper reflection was based on important legal principles. But there’s always a “but” with Judge Willis. There’s a certain amount of ‘playing to the gallery’ in relation to settler rights in relation to Aborigines, the independence of Port Phillip from Sydney oversight, and the superior quality of Port Phillip without a ‘convict taint’. And his public role was certainly ambiguous- he absents himself from many of the public roles within Port Phillip Society e.g. patron, benefactor etc, and prides himself on holding himself separate. Yet the same man is heard gossiping loudly on street corners, and giving vent to political opinions in the shops.
3. Preparedness to get involved in the media. Probably too much. A bit of distance here would have been ‘judicious’ (groan)
4. Good administrator. He certainly was a good manager- ferocious in championing his own sphere of influence (BUT was that just a way of big-noting himself?) He resisted funding cuts strenuously (BUT ditto?); he was loyal to employees who were loyal to him (BUT did he need to shore up his position?). I’m sure that he volunteered to come to Port Phillip precisely because it gave him the opportunity to establish a court from scratch, based on his own principles and predilections. No doubt he had sniffed the political wind, too, and hoped that when Port Phillip became a separate colony, he would naturally become Chief Justice.
I don’t know if any of this has taken me any further, but it’s interesting to see what the criteria for judging judicial ‘success’ might be.