In advance of the swearing-in of Michelle Gordon as the 52nd justice of the High Court on 9 June 2016, ABC’s Radio National has spoken about the ceremonial speeches of female judges with ANU’s Heather Roberts. These are events that Dr Roberts describes for the uninitiated as having ‘a bit of a ring of a combination between a eulogy for the living and an Academy Award acceptance speech’. And there are discernible differences in the events and between the speeches given in the past for the inauguration of men and women: one of the central topics of the Radio National program.
The program concludes by foreshadowing what might happen next week, with predictions of mentions of outgoing justice Kenneth Hayne and surfer culture in the speeches celebrating Michelle Gordon’s inauguration.
Certainly the expectation is that the welcoming of the fifth female High Court justice will be different in tone, audience, duration and content to those that welcomed our first.
Dr Roberts’s research has included reflecting upon and analysing the swearing-in and welcome speeches of Australia’s first female Justice of the High Court: Mary Gaudron. This occurred in February 1987 (together with the swearing in of Justice Toohey and Chief Justice Mason). It was a significant day for women in the legal community and the Australian population more generally, but as Dr Roberts notes (at 494: author’s emphasis):
Among the gathering of legal dignitaries named in the transcript, including 15 former and currently serving Australian judges, eight Solicitors-General, 11 presidents of representative legal associations and 39 Queen’s Counsel, Gaudron was recorded as the only woman present in Court. She was also the first woman to have a speaking role at a High Court swearing-in ceremony.
Moreover, despite the significance of the occasion, ‘the Attorney General Lionel Bowen welcomed Her Honour Justice Gaudron without ever once mentioning that she was the first woman on the bench or even mentioning her gender’.