Justice Michael Kirby on "Are we all nominalists now?"


30th April 2004, 1-2pm held at the Leo Cussen Institute



Stephen Jones


My name is Stephen Jones and I am the Graduate and Equality Officer on the La Trobe University Law Students' Association and I would like to thank you all for coming. On behalf of the La Trobe University law Students Association I would like to thank you for coming to the inaugural The Justices Speeches. This is a new event on the law student calendar and I hope it is something that will continue for years.


The word justice has several meanings. Even when you do a superficial view of looking in the dictionary. The Macquarie Dictionary has ten different listings. Justice is also a theory. It is about social justice, criminal justice, contract and everything like that. It is not something we learn from law school but we learn from cases and books. The aim of The Justice Speeches is to not only introduce the concepts of justice but to give acknowledgment to those that sit in positions. Justice is also the title given to those that sit in the judicial offices of the Supreme Court and also the High Court of Australia. On that note it gives me great pleasure to introduce the guest speaker, a very special guest speaker, for the inaugural speech.


Justice Michael Kirby was appointed to the High Court of Australia in 1996. At the time of his appointment he was the President of the NSW Court of Appeal, having been appointed to that office in September 1984 . He was admitted to the NSW bar in 1967. He was appointed a Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation & Arbitration Commission in 1975. He has held numerous national and international positions including on the board with the CSIRO, as the President of the Court of Appeal of the Solomon Islands, as the United Nations special representative in Cambodia, as the President of the International Commission of Jurists. This is among many of his works. In 1991 he was appointed a Companion in the general division in the Order of Australia. It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you a man that epitomises the commitment to justice. This is a man whose judgments whose judgment have helped me through law school and a man who explains the law with such clarity that I think everyone in this room will appreciate the work he has done




Justice Michael Kirby


Thank you very much for that introduction. I am very proud to be the inaugural speaker in this Justice Speeches series.


Law and Justice: Mind and Heart


It was a very nostalgic walk for me, down from the new Commonwealth Law Courts to this place. I walked along William Street past the Supreme Court, where last October the High Court had its Centenary sitting in the Banco court. A hundred years earlier, exactly to the minute, the first sitting of the High Court of Australia had happened there[1]. I then turned to the left and walked down Little Bourke Street. I walked past 451 Little Bourke Street which at the time of my first judicial appointment in December 1974, was the venue of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to which you have heard I was appointed. It is now a much jazzier building. In those days it was a rather decrepit, Formica type building, if you understand my drift. I walked then on and past what was, at that stage, the old High Court of Australia building on my left. And down here to the Leo Cussen Institute.


It is thirty years since I was first given the title of Justice. I am the second longest serving justice in our country. The longest serving is Justice Kemeri Murray of the Family Court of Australia. I have threatened to poison her so that I would be number one.


It's an excellent initiative of the Law Students' Association to launch this series. I hope it will stimulate ideas of justice in your minds and in your hearts. We are called to a vocation that is not a purely mechanical one. It is very important to understand that. We are not simply mechanics. We are not simply applying unquestioned rules, which don't involve any input from ourselves. Our input, when it comes, must come from a combination of our mind and our heart. That has been how it has been for 800 years of the Common Law. It will be so throughout your lifetime. You will have to make a contribution to it. Law and Justice are a product of mind and heart.


Enter the nominalists


On Tuesday of this week the High Court was sitting in Canberra. It is a particularly beautiful time of the year in Canberra. All the trees are changing colour. My chambers are on the back, or the front, of the High Court, depending on whether you regard the lake as the front. I look over at Parliament House. My chambers have a magnificent sweep of the Brindabellas and of all of the beautiful buildings of Canberra: of the old Parliament House and the new Parliament. Of the administrative buildings. I see from the constitutional triangle not only the lovely trees and the nature which is the glory of Canberra but also the seat of government of our country. The High Court of Australia is placed there in the constitutional triangle together with the executive government and the Parliament. We are the symbols of the highest reach of government in Australia.


I was sitting there preparing for the hearing of quite a complicated case. My mind was totally absorbed in the detail of the case. Into the room burst Justice McHugh. His eyes were bright and fiery. He looked at me and he said, 'Do you know that you and I have been called nominalists?' I sat for a moment stunned. That was a mistake. You must never let anyone know in the law that you are stunned. You must always be ready to seize the moment and to show that you know exactly what is happening around you. I had heard that I had been called many things in my lifetime. But 'nominalist'. What was a 'nominalist'? He said 'You and I have been called nominalists'. The blood drained from my face as I contemplated what on earth a nominalist could be. I rushed into the High Court reading room, which is just adjacent to my chambers. Trembling, I picked up The Australian newspaper. The article in The Australian called 'Pink Picket Fence'[2] contains a report of a submission presented to the federal government concerning the law of marriage. The submission was drafted by the Australian Family Association. In the article its spokesman, Richard Egan, said, in effect, 'We need amendments to the Marriage Act because of the 'nominalists''. This is what was reported[3]:


'Egan accused nominalists such as High Court Justices Michael McHugh and Michael Kirby and the Justices of the Supreme Court of Ontario in Canada and Massachusetts in the United States of being Humpty Dumpties who assign marriage no fixed meaning. They say that using their raw judicial power they can, like Humpty Dumpty, simply declare that two men can marry each other or two women may marry each other. Marriage, they say, is not a given reality but a fluid concept that can expand, stretch or redefine as we please'.


In the immortal words of Vladimir Illyich Lenin, said Mr Egan, quoting the great revolutionary, 'What is to be done?'


So I sat reading The Australian, in silence. I had to sit down because as you know I didn't know what was coming. I then composed myself and thought are we truly nominalists? Is Justice McHugh sharing with me 'nominalism'? So I thought I should share with you this theory, that is Mr Egan's theory. Perhaps I should explore it a little in these remarks.


Immediately I knew what Mr Egan was getting at. His reference was to the great case of Re Wakim[4]. That was the case that undid the cross vesting legislation so far as it purported to permit State Parliaments to confer State jurisdiction on Federal courts. In describing the theory of constitutional interpretation in the High Court, Justice McHugh responded, in Wakim, to some humble remarks I had made in my sole dissent in that case. I there suggested that the interpretation of the Constitution adopted by the majority was neither necessary nor correct[5]. In his reasons Justice McHugh explored, in a very important and very interesting and typically well written passage, how courts and especially the High Court of Australia, go about interpreting the sparse language of our constitutional text. This is what he said. Obviously this is what provoked Mr Egan[6]:


"... Many words and phrases of the Constitution are expressed at such a level of generality that the most sensible conclusion to be drawn from their use in a constitution is that the makers of the Constitution intended that they should have been able to apply to whatever facts and circumstances succeeding generations thought they covered. Examples can be found in the powers conferred on the parliament of the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to 'trade and commerce' with other countries and among the States or 'external affairs' or 'conciliation and arbitration for the prevention of settlement of industrial disputes'. In these and other cases the test is what do these words mean to us as late 20th Century Australians? The level of abstraction for some terms of the constitution is however much harder to identify than that of those set out up above. Thus, in 1901, marriage was seen as meaning a voluntary union for life between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. If that level of abstraction were now accepted it would deny the Parliament of the Commonwealth the power to legislate for same sex marriages, although arguably 'marriage' now means or in the near future may mean a voluntary union for life between two people to the exclusion of others."


So this is the passage which caused Mr Egan to think that Justice McHugh was a 'nominalist'. Of course in the High Court of Australia we have not to this time had to consider what 'marriage' in the marriage power means[7]. This is because there has not been a case which has presented that matter to the Court. I am not in these remarks going to embark upon what I think it may mean. This is because I have not had the advantage of the arguments of the lawyers and the consideration of the hard facts of a case that will concretise the issue.


However, in a talk I gave at Melbourne University on the subject of methods of constitutional interpretation, I referred to Justice McHugh's remarks in the decision in Wakim[8]. I said that his remarks indicated, in a very vivid way, how words can take on a different meaning. The words remain the same. But over the passage of time (leave aside marriage for the present purposes) words can take up a different meaning. Courts giving meaning to the words which the Constitution requires in a contemporary case have to focus on the word. However, the judges must also keep in mind that the word can acquire a change in content - new nuances of meaning derived from the changing social context in which the words are used. That is the genius of words at least in the English language. It is the phenomenon of constitutional interpretation.


So I sat there distracted from my labours in the case at hand and thought how many others on the High Court are 'nominalists'? Are there no 'originalists' left who take the view that the words of the Constitution are set in stone? That the meaning of the words is to be found, and found only, by reference to what those words meant in 1900 when the Constitution was adopted by the Imperial Parliament[9]? Or in 1901 when it came into force in Australia? What is the answer to that question?


The constitutional word 'aliens'


Into my mind came flooding case after case of the matters that have been decided in the High Court in the eight years since I was appointed, in which Court has had to look at a word or a little phrase and to give it a meaning. Often, the Court has come to conclusions that, almost certainly, were not the conclusions about the meaning of the word in 1900 or 1901[10].


Take for example the decision in Re Patterson ex parte Taylor[11]. It is a decision given in 2001. So it is quite a recent decision. That was a case about Mr Taylor who had come to Australia at the age of six. He had migrated from Britain. He came on the Assistant Migrant Scheme at that time. He was a British subject, as we all were in Australia at that time. He didn't take out Australian citizenship. The overwhelming majority of people who came to Australia from the United Kingdom at that time did not take out Australian citizenship. This was because they did not think it was necessary to go along to a ceremony and swear allegiance to the Queen given that they already held that allegiance. Therefore citizenship was not something that they thought was essential in their case, however much it might be essential or desirable in the case of people who came from other less fortunate lands outside British dominion.


Mr Taylor with his family lived here from his sixth year for several decades. At a certain time , I think he was by this time in his thirties, he committed criminal offences. The Minister for Immigration decided to revoke his 'visa' and to expel him from Australia. Mr Taylor had no family in the United Kingdom. He had no connection with the United Kingdom. He had never been to the United Kingdom since he had arrived to Australia at the age of 6. Indeed, he had never left this country since the age of 6. He came to the High Court of Australia and said to the Minister: "You cannot expel me because I may not be an Australian citizen but I am an Australian national. I am a subject of the Queen. In that capacity I am not an 'alien'[12]. My period of 'migration' has long since expired[13]. You cannot deal with me as a migrant or an alien and therefore you cannot expel me'. The basic issue was presented to the High Court in the case of Ex parte Taylor as to what the little word 'alien' in the Constitution meant.


In a case of Nolan v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs[14], more than a decade earlier, the High Court by majority, with Justice Gaudron alone dissenting, held that 'alien' in today's world effectively meant non-citizen. If that determination was correct, then the Minister had the entitlement to expel Mr Taylor from Australia. In Nolan, Justice Gaudron said the word 'citizen' does not appear, relevant to nationality in the Constitution[15]. It is a statutory expression. It's not a constitutional notion. Therefore, you cannot expel Mr Taylor as a 'non-citizen'. You have got to consider whether you have the power in the Constitution in respect to his nationality.


When Mr Taylor's case came before the High Court, four of the judges in the case, Justices Gaudron, McHugh and Callinan and I held that the arguments of Mr Taylor were correct. We had slightly different reasons for arguing when British nationality had ceased. However, the majority were all convinced that the notion of 'alien' from the beginning of the Constitution and right up to quite recent times, meant in the case that British subjects who were non citizens could still have Australian nationality. They could not be expelled as aliens[16].


There was then a change in the composition of the High Court of Australia. Justice Gaudron retired. Justice Heydon took her place. The issue came back to the Court because the Minister was not very happy with the decision in Taylor. It came back to the Court in the case of Shaw v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs[17] with Justice Heydon replacing Justice Gaudron. That case was decided last year.


That case effectively amounted to a very rapid challenge, just two years after Taylor, to the decision in Taylor. It was an attempt to restore the 'true' doctrine, as it was put, that had been expressed in Nolan. Justices McHugh, Callinan and I didn't shift our positions. Nor did Chief Justice Gleeson or Justice Gummow and Justice Hayne shift their contrary positions. So it was 3:3. It was up to Justice Heydon to deliver the decisive opinion. And when Justice Heydon's opinion came in, it was a very brief one you'll be pleased to hear[18]. But it favoured the view favoured by Chief Justice Gleeson, Justice Gummow and Justice Hayne in Taylor.


The result was that a meaning was given to the constitutional word 'alien'. By majority, 'alien' meant, effectively in this day in age, 'non citizen'. This was so although citizenship is not referred to in the Constitution as one of the powers for the enactment of laws by the Federal Parliament. It is a statutory not a constitutional notion.


There are too many references to 'subject of the Queen' in the Australian Constitution[19] for there to be any doubt that in 1900 the framers of the Constitution would have rejected with a scoff the notion that 'alien' meant a subject of the Queen who was born in the United Kingdom within the allegiance of the Queen, and came to this country at the age of six and lived here all his life. In 1900, without any shadow of a doubt, neither Mr Taylor nor Mr Shaw would have been 'aliens'.


It is interesting to look at the qualifications for Members of the Federal Parliament. There is no mention there of their having to be Australian 'citizens'. The reference in the Constitution is only to there having to be a 'subject of the Queen'[20]. Put simply, that was the nationality status in 1900. So when the Court looked at the word 'alien' today, the issue was how do we should interpret it. The majority of the court in Shaw's case held that it didn't mean the opposite of 'subject of the Queen'. At least it did not mean that in terms of the Queen in right of the United Kingdom. It meant effectively, in today's terms 'non citizen'.


So there stands the debate in that case. An awful thought came across my mind as I sat there in the High Court reading room. Perhaps Chief Justice Gleeson, Justice Gummow, Justice Hayne and Justice Heydon are 'nominalists'. Perhaps they are judges who believe that the word 'alien' has a shifting meaning. They can give a different meaning to the anchor in the text and the meaning of 1900. They effectively acknowledged a shift in meaning. I shook my head and thought that surely cannot be. Can they be 'nominalists' too? Surely not. But then I reflected on the cases about jury trial.


The constitutional phrase: trial "by jury"


You will remember that there is that small, pathetic, almost unnoticed provision in Section 80 of the Constitution, which says that in trials of indictable offences in federal cases, those trials have to be held 'by jury'. However, the guarantee might almost as well not be in the Constitution because the Court has given meaning to the words 'on indictment' as connoting anything that, by the procedures of the time, is an 'indictable' offence[21]. Presumably, if the law does not require the matter to be proceeded with on 'indictment', any case can proceed in a summary way without an indictment and then it doesn't pick up the right to trial 'by jury'.


This is a view of the interpretation of the Constitution that I don't agree with. However, in respect of s 80, it is pretty well established in the constitutional doctrine of the High Court. Despite that, over the last four or five years, in my time on the Court, we've had case after case where issues have been presented, about what that little expression 'by jury' means in Section 80[22].


One case came before my time on the court in the case of Cheatle v Queen[23]. It concerned whether or not you could have trial 'by jury' with majority verdicts? In most of the States of Australia, the Jury Acts have been amended to permit, in certain circumstances, majority verdicts. If there is one juror holding out, you can take the verdict from the 11. Or, in some cases, if there are two jurors holding out you can take the verdict from 10. Mr Cheatle was convicted by jury in South Australia on a majority verdict. Because in that case the conviction occurred in a federal trial, of a federal offence in federal jurisdiction, the courts applied, through the Judiciary Act, the procedural laws of the State[24]. The judge accepted a majority verdict. But Mr Cheatle challenged that course in the High Court. He said, 'by jury' meant, by a process that is well entrenched in the Constitution. He threw in for good measure, 'by the meaning of a jury trial in 1901'. So the case came up to the High Court.


The court held that an essential notion of jury trial is unanimity. It's essential because that is what had always been required of jury trials in England. It was required long before Australia was settled and then in every jury trial in colonial times up to the adoption of the Federal Constitution. So what was involved was simply discovering and applying the meaning of the words, 'by jury'.


The High Court had a bit of a problem here. This was because, if the issue of what those words meant had to be determined only by reference to the meaning of jury trial in 1900 it was the law that to be a member of a jury in every colony of Australia, you had to have two qualities. One, you had to be of the male gender. And the other requirement was that you had to own some property. If you didn't have the property but were of the male gender you couldn't serve. If you were of the male gender and didn't have the property you couldn't serve. If you were a female you just couldn't serve as a juror at all. You could be a very wealthy female, but you were not entrusted with serving on juries.


And so it was in Cheatle that the Court held that unanimity was essential for jury trial. They held that on the basis that, that was what was required in the Common Law and in the courts practice up to the Constitution. But the Court went on to say, that there were some features of jury trial at the time when Constitution was adopted that had not been carried into the constitutional meaning today. Such as the male gender or property qualifications[25]. Since Cheatle was decided, one after another we have had cases in which the question has arisen as to whether innovations in jury trial that have been introduced in the State jurisdictions could be practised in federal jurisdiction.


For example can you separate the jury? If you go up to the library at the Supreme Court in Melbourne, above the wonderful rotunda are the rooms where jurors who were trying a case were kept overnight. There were bunks there. The conditions were shall we say, pretty primitive. But jurors were not separated. They could not leave the precincts of the court and the control of the Sheriff's officer whilst they were conducting a trial. This was because the accused had been placed 'upon his country'. The solemn responsibility of the jury (in many cases concerning the life and death of the prisoner) was to stay together. In this way they would be completely immured from external influences, pressure, bribery, corruption or anything else. It was the rule of the time. Absolutely strictly adhered to.


The question arose in Brownlee's case[26], whether in today's age, where jurors want to get home to their children and to their families, cook the dinner and get on with life, we would tolerate in federal trials what had been permitted in State jurisdictions? Or whether that was forbidden by the constitutional words 'by jury' in Section 80? The High Court held that the verdict still had to be unanimous. But the jurors can separate. They don't have to be kept together and locked up even whilst deliberating. It also held that there can be reserve jurors. Trials now go on for much longer than typically they did in the 19th Century. Many of the States have provisions for reserve jurors. The question arose as to whether that could come within the little phrase 'by jury'[27]? The High Court held that juror separation and reserve jurors were within trial 'by jury'. But no to male qualifications and no to property rights.


So what is the distinction which has informed the decision that 'by jury' picks up certain matters which were a phenomenon of 19th Century jury trial before the Constitution was adopted, but not other matters which are a feature of jury trial in most parts of Australia today? Once again, an awful thought crossed my mind, that the judges who had agreed to the separation of the juries and had agreed to allow women on juries and who had agreed that you didn't have to have property rights in juries and agreed that juries could include reserve jurors where other jurors fell ill; perhaps they were 'nominalists' too? This would mean all members of the Court. It is a tantalising question isn't it to consider whether we are all 'nominalists' now? And if so, in the immortal words of V.I Lenin, "What is to be done?"


Living on a legal knife's edge


The way in which we resolve these questions requires judicial technique and also a theory about the Constitution. Not every case involves the Constitution. We heard a case yesterday in the High Court which had three very intriguing points in it. One of them concerned whether it is a 'reasonable excuse' within the meaning of the criminal justice amendments in Western Australia, for police to agree to a suggested request by the accused to switch off the video recording whilst the accused is making a statement to police? During the period off camera the accused allegedly made what are said to be confessional statements that are damaging. Is it 'reasonable excuse' that the accused is alleged to have said, 'switch off the camera'? Or, if that were accepted as a 'reasonable excuse', would it drive a horse and cart through the purpose of the criminal law and procedures of Western Australia that oblige the video taping of confessions to police in those circumstances?


There were two other very interesting points in the case. One of them concerned collateral evidence. That is to say, when do you exceptionally permit collateral evidence to be received into evidence in a trial even though it is hearsay, and doesn't prove the truth of the matter that is involved? The case involved a prisoner in custody who alleged that a person who gave evidence against the accused had confessed in prison to another prisoner, effectively, that he was going to 'fit' the accused who was the appellant in our Court. The legal problem is a well known problem. How do you draw the line, a line of principle, between permitting a person to give probative evidence, whilst not chasing every hare down it's burrow? Courts don't as it were, look at every issue on the footing that what is said, even if proved, would merely prove that the person said something that would not necessarily prove that it was true?


As I was listening to this case, I leant over to Justice Callinan and I said 'We have a very stressful life here, do you realise this? Every case has problems which are right at the cusp' 'We are living,' I said, trembling, to Justice Callinan '...we are living on a knife's edge. We have to decide about juries, about aliens, about collateral evidence, about reasonable excuse. Every day is presenting us with really difficult questions. They may be questions of the Constitution. They may be questions of statutory construction. They may be questions to the common law. But they are always on a knife's edge. That is where we live'. He smiled knowingly and we went back to the case.


I've come along to this Justice Lecture today to tell you how difficult the life of a Justice of the High Court of Australia is. I have done so in order that you will all appreciate how hard we have to work. How we give you our reasons at considerable length so that you will understand the working of our minds and see the considerations which have led us to one result or another. It is in the very nature of the decisions of the kind I have told you about, the considerations relating to the 'marriage' power if you like, or to the 'aliens' power, or to trial 'by jury' or to collateral evidence or to the interpretation of a statute that talks of 'reasonable excuse'. All such decisions are disputable. For none of them is there an easy, simple solution.


It is of the nature of the questions that we get in the High Court of Australia that we don't have an easy ride. There are no simple answers. Certainly, by the time you get to the High Court of Australia, if it is a simple case, it ought not be there. And normally it doesn't get there. That's why simplistic notions about 'nominalists' or 'originalists' have to be rejected by lawyers. Such notions oversimplify the very function which the Constitution gives to our judges. Moreover, they oversimplify the function that all of the judges perform and always have performed and always will perform, in defending the rule of law and seeking to uphold equal justice under law.


What is new about our age is there is much more candour on the part of judges about the performance and about the considerations that are taken into account. About whether you take into account an idea of the function of a jury trial as required in the Constitution. About what the Constitution is getting at by requiring that function? Does that notion of the function forbid the taking of a view that will allow the section of the Constitution to be made worthless by a simple change of procedure (indictable or non indictable)? What is our Constitution there for? What is its purpose? Giving meaning to the words in the Constitution according to the purpose of a living Constitution for a free people is the most important task that the High Court of Australia performs.


There are so many other things that I could talk about. But you all have work to do. I have two other speeches to make this afternoon. I hope I don't confuse the speeches but keep them clearly in my mind. I think this is what I intended to say to you at lunchtime.


It would be most useful now if we were to have some questions and answers. You may have had a burning question that you just wanted to ask me all these years. Or to ask any old judge of the High Court (any of them will do) about our Constitution, about the way we go about our work, what our life is like. This is your chance.


Diversity in appointments to the High Court


Audience Member #1:


I know that in Shaw you said (and I am probably paraphrasing here and I apologise if I get it wrong but I believe you said something like) this decision really brings to light that it's who is on the High Court that really makes the difference about where a decision will go... I think that is the gist of what you were going to say. To what extent do you think the High Court should be reflecting the diversity of Australia? To what extent do you think the politicians should be appointing people because of their different life experiences, as part of the criteria?


Justice Kirby:< p> Somebody came into the High Court last week and saw us in our magnificence arrayed there. It was the first time that this person had come to the High Court since Justice Gaudron retired. He said to me later what a shock it was to him to see a court without at least one woman member. I have said publicly, and I say again to you, the High Court is a more 'blokey' place now than it was before Justice Gaudron left. It is inevitable. Justice Gaudron was a very formidable person. She really changed the culture and the atmosphere the Court. I'm not stereotyping women on the basis that you have to have a woman who will talk about the kitchen and things like that, because that is decidedly not the way Justice Gaudron saw her role. But a woman's life is not the same as a man's life. Her life's experience is typically going to be different. Just as, say, an Asian Australian's life is in some respects different from a Caucasian Australian's life. And I can tell you that the life of a gay man is somewhat different from the life of a straight man. That is just a feature of diversity in human society.


You can't find a seat for everybody in the Court. You can't just have our compulsory Roman Catholic or compulsory Buddhist. Or say that it would be nice to toss in somebody from the Tibet Freedom Association. You just can't do that. There aren't enough places. There are only 7 of us. I was only the 40th High Court Judge in 100 years. There are not too many vacancies. They don't come up too often.


So that is the problem. But, within that problem, I think in the future we will see Governments of all political persuasions, much more conscious of the need to reflect diversity in appointments. We are now a very different country to the country I grew up in. When I grew up Australians were both very frightened of, very suspicious of and a little bit contemptuous of, Asian people. It was the era of White Australia. It's very hard for you of the younger generation to know what it was like at that time. I can tell you from my work for the United Nations in Cambodia, we are not the only country in the world to have had racist views. The Khmer often hate the Vietnamese. It's a very ancient, very longstanding, very historical. This, sadly, is not unusual. I think that in islands, it tends to be aggravated. For example I believe Japan can be quite a xenophobic country. I think the UK has been a rather xenophobic country. And in Australia, we're a very big island.


But this is a long way of saying you can't have every interest on the High Court. However, it is certainly is an advantage if you have diverse voices. If you only have one set of voices, you don't have the advantage of testing your propositions against other points of view.


I went to the University of Chicago in January. There is an excellent Professor there named Cass Sunstein. He has written a new book called Why Societies Need Dissent[28]. The book focuses on the 'cascading effect'. If you don't have dissenting opinions, there is a tendency for judges, in appellate courts, to 'cascade' towards the one opinion and not, as it were, to test propositions and to test their own intuitive and analytical answers.


How we get greater diversity will depend very largely upon the attitudes of Governments. However, the appointment of the new Chief Justice of Victoria, Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, is a symbol that times are changing. We will see more such changes. It will make for the strengthening and the deepening of the values that are inevitably reflected in the kinds of decisions that are at the knife's edge that I have been talking about here today.


There must be no constitutional "black holes"


Audience Member #2:


Do you have an opinion on how the United States Supreme Court should deal with the question of the US Executive Governments' reach and whether there is judicial check on its reach as far as refugees are concerned in Guantanamo Bay? And if it is easy to answer, if a similar thing were to happen with the Australian Executive Government how the High Court might deal with it using Australian Constitutional principles? It is a fair point if you don't want to answer that question.


Justice Kirby:


In Australia we have an important provision in our Constitution. It is Section 75(v). Because section 75(v) is in the Constitution it cannot be overridden by legislation. It says, in effect, that if you have a complaint that an officer of the Commonwealth has exceeded their jurisdiction and power, you can go straight to the High Court. The provision was put in there in the federation debates to overcome what were perceived to be defects in the American Article 3: the Third Chapter of the American Constitution. Therefore, the scope of this provision, and the fact that it overcomes legislation which attempts to exclude it, was demonstrated last year in the case of Plaintiff 157 v The Commonwealth[29]. That was a case concerning a so-called 'privative clause'. Upon one view it had endeavoured to keep the courts out of judicial review of the power of a Commonwealth officer in the field of immigration detention in some circumstances. The High Court held that the officer was still accountable to the law as long as that person was on the federal payroll as an "officer of the Commonwealth". There was accountability to the Constitution. Therefore, to a large extent, the question can't arise in Australia in the same way as in the United States.


You may remember the case concerning the Tampa[30]. It came before the High Court. In the special leave application, the Court declined to grant special leave. That was largely for technical reasons concerned with the fact that the persons concerned were no longer within the jurisdiction of the Court to allow orders that would provide effectively for their relief. Therefore, the case wasn't taken up by the High Court. However, certain matters of principle were reserved in case they might arise in the future in a different case.


As to the United States, every September I go to a conference at Yale Law School. It is a wonderful conference. Lord Chief Justice Woolf is there. Chief Justice Barak from Israel is there. Justice Iaccubucci is there from the Supreme Court of Canada. Judges from the European Court of Human Rights and courts from all over the world.


It's a very select group of about 18 judges. We had a most electric session last year where Lord Justice Woolf, was critical of the situation in Guantanamo Bay. Sitting opposite was Justice Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The criticisms coming from, as it were, the centre of the Common Law was extremely telling. Yet even more telling were the remarks of Justice Aaron Barak of Israel.


Justice Barak made the point that Germany in the 1930s was not a land without law. There was plenty of law. The Nuremberg laws provided for many of the deprivations of the Jewish people and of Gypsies and other disadvantaged minorities. There was a tonne of law. Germany was the Rechtstaat. It was a country of law. But, said Justice Barak there were 'black holes'. There were areas where there was no law. Where the law didn't run. He said 'we must have no black holes'. There must always be an answer to the courts and to the rule of law. Justice Breyer said in effect 'Give us a break, because this hasn't come to our Court .' It was very interesting last week to look at the transcript of the United States Supreme Court[31] arguments. Justice Breyer is recorded as expressing opinions, in some respects similar to some of those that were reflected in the views of the people around the table at Yale. Justice Scalia is recorded as reflecting other and different opinions. Such diversity is healthy. It is inevitable in the courts of free countries.


The most important development that has happened that is demonstrated in recent decisions in the US Supreme Court, is the impact of international human rights law on the decisions of the Court. The decision in Atkins v Virginia[32], which was a case concerning whether they could execute mentally retarded juveniles. The case of Lawrence v Texas[33] which was a case concerning the enforcement of a Texas statute against consenting adult private homosexual conduct. Both of these cases were decided on the basis of the use of international human rights law. This is a very, very important development. I'm not talking about the interpretation of a statute. That's settled theory in our country as well[34]. I'm talking about the interpretation of the Constitution by reference to universal human rights principles[35]. This is an indication that, even in the United States, possibly the most intellectually insular country in the world in these things, the use of international principles is beginning to bite. It's going to be a development that will be very important in your lifetime as lawyers.


Facing criticism - legal and personal


Audience Member #3:


How do you deal with political criticism levelled at your professional and personal life?


Justice Kirby:


I just get on with my work. I have been around a long time as I told you - since 1974. Most of you weren't even born in 1974. Therefore, I've been doing my job faithfully, conscientiously and efficiently for a long time: 30 years this year.


We live in a free society. The opinions of the High Court and of any other court are not immune from criticism. It is the right of everybody to criticise judicial opinions and to say that they disagree with them. They can even call us 'nominalists'. I mean 'nominalists' is pretty tame. We've been called 'basket weavers' and various other things[36]. 'Nominalists' is positively nice. You can get used to it. I don't ever resent criticism directed at issues.


It is, however, disappointing when criticism and insult are directed at persons. We ought to be a strong and diverse enough society to have enough respect for different points of view. What does it matter that people have different points of view? There is legitimacy in different points of view. I disagree quite often with my colleagues. However, I never doubt that they are conscientious, sincere, hard working, and honest in the expression of their point of view and in their expression of their understanding of the law.


As lawyers in our profession and as citizens we should be big enough to understand these are great issues that we deal with. People are just going to have different viewpoints about them. The sources of different approaches are going to run very deep. If you actually burrowed very, very deeply it would take psychoanalysis to say why people see a different meaning in the word 'alien' or in the word 'jury'. Or in any other word in the Constitution.


So criticism is legitimate. Personal criticism, which is the manner of the times, is not legitimate. It's therefore important, I think, that the law officers should defend the judges when that sort of personal criticism is made. But some do not.


Rigorous technique and a social conscience


We have now had a very interesting encounter. I pay my respects to La Trobe University. In my days in the Law Reform Commission I had a great deal to do with La Trobe University. It was always a place which had rigorous intellectual endeavour but with a social conscience. That's a very good thing.


It's not good enough for us to be very fine and wealthy lawyers. It is important for us to keep asking ourselves "What are we here for? What are we doing? What is our life about? What is our vocation about?"


My sister is an oncology nursing sister. She has most difficult work and a much more stressful life than I. It's a noble life. Yet I like to think that ours is also a noble life. We can't always do what we would think is noble. We had an instance of that yesterday in the appeal from the Family Court of Australia concerning children in immigration detention[37].


We can't always do what we would like to do in the law. We are servants of law. However, in discharging our function we often have choices. We live 'on the knife's edge'. When we have a choice and when the law permits it, it is our duty to call upon a social conscience. That is something that I believe La Trobe University taught 30 years ago when I was first connected with it. I believe it is what it teaches today.


Stephen Jones


Thank you Justice Kirby, that was amazing. Thank you for coming. My job really is to introduce Sonya Curciev who is the current President of the Law Students' Association who is going to do the formal thank you.


Sonya Curciev


Good afternoon everybody, it's quite an exciting moment and I'm sure that you can all appreciate. On that note I would like to say that I am incredibly honoured as the President of the La Trobe Law Students' Association to have the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby here to speak at our inaugural 'The Justice Speeches.' I think he is well deserving of another round of applause so please.... [Applause]


As a very small token of our appreciation we do have a bottle of red to give you. Thank you.


And the thanks do not stop there. This event would not have occurred if it wasn't for Stephen Jones. He has done a marvellous job in organising the smooth running of this event and I think he also deserves round of applause as well... [Applause]


And last but not very least, I would like to also thank Leo Cussens for their generosity in hosting this event, without the help of Leo Cussens we would not have had an actual place to host this event other than out in Bundoora so thankyou again to Leo Cussens.


And I hope that everyone has gained something from this speech. Also for people who haven't been able to attend, the speech will be available via audio and on our website as well, fairly soon. So please tell people who haven't been able to make it that they can actually access the speech. So thank you everybody for coming and supporting a La Trobe LSA event.


[1] See "High Court Centenary" (2003) 77 ALJ 653, 783.


[2] The Australian, 27 April 2004, p 9.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Re Wakim; Ex parte McNally (1999) 198 CLR 511.


[5] Ibid´┐Ż596 [178] ff.


[6] Ibid, 551-553 at 552-3 [44]-[45] (citations omitted).


[7] Constitution, s 51 (xxi).


[8] M D Kirby, "Constitutional Interpretation and Original Intent: A Form of Ancestor Worship? (2000) 24 MULR 1.


[9] See eg Grain Pool of Western Australia v The Commonwealth (2000) 202 CLR 479 at 518 [97].


[10] A good illustration is Sue v Hill (1999) 199 CLR 462 at 503, 524-526.


[11] (2001) 207 CLR 391.


[12] Constitution, s 51 (xix).


[13] Constitution, s 51 (xxvii).


[14] (1988) 165 CLR 178.


[15] Ibid, at 191.


[16] See Re Patterson (2001) 207 CLR 391 at 413 [53], 436 [135], 494-495 [310], 518 [377].


[17] (2003) 78 ALJR 203; 203 ALR 143.


[18] (2003) 78 ALJR 203 at 235 [190].


[19] eg Constitution, ss 34(ii), 117.


[20] Constitution, s 34(ii).


[21] The King v Bernasconi (1915) 19 CLR 629 at 637.


[22] See eg Cheung v The Queen (2001) 209 CLR 1.


[23] (1993) 177 CLR 541.


[24] Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth), ss 39, 68.


[25] (1993) 177 CLR 541 at 560. They were called "undesirable features".


[26] Brownlee v The Queen (2001) 207 CLR 278.


[27] Fittock v The Queen (2003) 77 ALJR 961; Ng v The Queen (2003) 77 ALJR 967.


[28] (Harvard, 2003) at 153.


[29] (2003) 211 CLR 476.


[30] Vardarlis v Ruddock, High Court transcript, unreported, 27November 2001 (SLR). See (2001) 110 FCR 452 overruled by (2001) 110 FCR 491.


[31] In Al Odah & Ors v United States argued 21 April 2004. Reserved.


[32] 536 US 304 (2002).


[33] 539 US 558 (2003); 122 SCt 2242 (2003).


[34] Jumbunna Coal Mine NL v Victorian Coal Miners' Association (1908) 6 CLR 309 at 363.


[35] cf Newcrest Mining (WA) Ltd v The Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 513 at 657.


[36] M D Kirby, "Attacks on Judges: A Universal Phenomenon" (1998) 72 ALJ 599.


[37] Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs v B [2004] HCA 20.