“[F]ew Australians outside the law schools are likely to be able to name the Chief Justice, let alone the puisne Justices of the High Court”, Justice Virginia Bell said in 2017. And she’s right, according to a survey of roughly 500 Australians performed later that year, now published in the Federal Law Review (open access draft available here.) Between 82 and 92% of the participants (all recruited by a market research company from existing panels) didn’t come within cooee of identifying the occupations of each of the seven current justices, with Kiefel CJ and Nettle J the best known and Edelman J the least, scoring no better than US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Robert, fictional US President Selina Meyer and 1960s Australian Chief Justice Owen Dixon. More Australians could identify the occupation of Judy Sheindlin (TV’s Judge Judy) than any current High Court justice. Several identified both Susan Kiefel and Virginia Bell as New Zealand’s Prime-Minister, Stephen Gageler as Australia’s Treasurer and Geoffrey Nettle as either a Victorian judge (which he once was) or the Governor-General (which he isn’t yet.) On the other hand, one respondent correctly identified Patrick Keane as the AFL’s (then) Media Relations Manager. More Australians thought the High Court had only one female judge than three, but – as in all the survey questions – many more said they just didn’t ‘know’.
The justices’ identities are one thing, but their work is another. Continue reading