Get ready Australia, justice has a new name AND gender!
Judge Susan Kiefel was appointed as the first female Chief Justice of the High Court, the highest judicial level in the country, and will officially take up her position on January 30. We know justice itself doesn’t have a gender, per say, but it sure does feel good to see this long-standing gender barrier finally being broken. And her appointment is being hailed as a positive move from both the conservative Liberal party, as well as Labour, the two major political parties in Australia.
During the announcement made to the national media by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the word “inspiration” was held up as the summary of her career so far. Chief Justice Kiefel was already a member of the 7-person High Court bench, alongside 2 other judges, Virginia Bell and Michelle Gordon.
The Australian High Court, which has jurisdictional power over both federal and state laws, has only seen 5 women in total (including the current roster) since its inception in 1903. Judge Susan Kiefel’s journey to the highest position in the highest court in the land was not what you’d consider a predictable trajectory.
At the age of 15, the native Queenslander dropped out of high school to pursue employment opportunities, which she ended up regretting. While she was working as a Brisbane-based law firm secretary, she decided to finish her high-school certificate part time.
She then took a job as a legal clerk while studying for her law degree at night. She passed the bar exam with honors in the early 70’s and was admitted in 1975. In 1984, while on a sabbatical leave, she earned a Master of Laws from Cambridge University. Her appointments and roles from there on in indicate that being a trailblazer was always in her blood.
She was appointed as the first female Queen’s Counsel in Queensland in 1987 and was appointed to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1989. In 1993 she became the first female Justice on Supreme Court of Queenland. Judge Kiefel was also one of the first women to be appointed to the Federal Court of Australia on 17 October 1994 under the Keating Government, after Justice Deirdre O’Connor.
In 2007, she was appointed to the High Court by then-Prime Minister Philip Ruddock. Her current appointment as the Chief Justice makes her only the third woman to hold that role, out of a total of 46 throughout history. When she joined the High Court in 2007, it marked the first time two women concurrently resided on the bench.
She succeeds outgoing Chief Justice Robert French, who is retiring. Susan’s previous position will be filled by West Australian Justice James Edelman, who at age 42 is one of the youngest ever appointments made to the court. ABC News Australia says this indicates the government is looking to have some long-term stability in the High Court.
In a statement to the press, Chief Justice Kiefel said it was an honor to become the first woman to hold this important title, and she looks forward to working alongside the other justices.
“It will be a privilege to walk in the footsteps of the eminent jurists who have been appointed Chief Justices since the Court was established in 1903. I’m honored by the appointment and very conscious of the responsibilities that go with the office of Chief Justice,” she said.
Stuart Clarke, the President of the Law Council of Australia praised the new appointment, saying her “talent and commitment to her profession has taken her to Australia’s highest judicial office. Justice Kiefel’s success should serve as an inspiration to all young people considering a career in law.”
The BBC reported on some of the high-profile rulings and cases she has been involved in during her time on the High Court so far. These include dismissing the Australian government’s Malaysia refugee solution, the overturning of a same-sex marriage law and the collapse of a company owned by billionaire former MP Clive Palmer.
Same-sex marriage is not yet legal across Australia at a federal level, though many activists and citizens want to see a law being passed. With the slow progression to even get to a place where a female Chief Justice is appointed, here’s hoping it could mean a positive result for the same-sex marriage issue the next time a major case comes before the High Court.
As Kcasey McLoughlin from The Conversation states, Chief Justice Kiefel’s appointment is as symbolic as it is indicative of the progression of women in a number of levels of power in Australian government.
“Women’s exclusion from legal and political power for much of last century makes Kiefel’s appointment all the more significant. Women will now have been in roles at the peak of each of the branches of government – women have previously served as prime minister, Commonwealth attorney-general and governor-general,” she writes.
She also emphasizes that her time as Chief Justice and the decisions made under her leadership could well define her own personal legacy, that of the court, as well as significant rulings for the Australian people.
“The visibility of women on the bench created by the almost-equal gender balance and the new chief justice makes an important symbolic statement about women’s admission to legal authority in Australia. If history is any indication, it is unlikely that the new chief justice will be drawn to comment on matters of gender and judging. It therefore remains to be seen what kind of contribution Kiefel will make to the High Court as chief justice, and whether her status as the first woman in that role will have any bearing on the court’s legacy,” writes Kcasey.
Closer to home in the US, we are yet to see a female US Supreme Court Justice appointment, and so far we have only witnessed 4 out of a total 112 judges on the SCOTUS bench since its creation in 1789. Currently, there are three female justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor (the first Latina Supreme Court judge), and Elena Kagan. With one position currently vacant, and up to 2 more potential vacancies rumored to be happening, many across the US are concerned about who may replace Justice Antonin Scalia under a Trump Presidency.
You can watch Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement to the press about the incoming Chief Justice Susan Kiefel below: