A cat­a­logue of le­gal bril­liance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE of­fi­cial por­trait of Chief Jus­tice Mur­ray Glee­son hangs in Court 3 of the High Court. Dressed sim­ply in a suit, he dis­pensed with the er­mine rai­ment of high of­fice. It was made un­nec­es­sary any­way by the au­thor­ity pro­jected in the rather icy stare. Glee­son, who re­tired in 2008, dubbed the paint­ing ‘‘The Laugh­ing Cav­a­lier’’, a ref­er­ence as ironic as ‘‘The Smiler’’, his soubri­quet at the Syd­ney Bar and the ti­tle of this ex­cel­lent biog­ra­phy by Michael Pelly.

Any bi­o­graph­i­cal de­pic­tion of the man must nec­es­sar­ily survey the in­sti­tu­tions that he led, and when those in­clude the High Court and the Supreme Court of NSW a pro­file be­comes a po­lit­i­cal and le­gal snap­shot of a na­tion. Pelly suc­ceeds in mak­ing the back­ground of the por­trait as com­pelling as the ob­ject.

Such was the promi­nence of Glee­son’s ca­reer that, in ef­fect, it charts the tur­bu­lence and tra­vails of 40 years of pub­lic af­fairs. His di­rect in­volve­ment as judge or ad­vo­cate ranged the breadth of Aus­tralian life: ad­vis­ing the Lib­eral Party on the pow­ers of the gov­er­nor-gen­eral a month be­fore the Dis­missal in 1975, lit­i­gat­ing the bot­tom of the har­bour tax schemes, horse rac­ing in the Fine Cot­ton af­fair, the en­vi­ron­ment in the Tas­ma­nian Dams case and the Ivan Mi­lat mur­ders. All of which came be­fore his el­e­va­tion to the High Court and the ar­ray of judg­ments that fol­lowed, from Work Choices to asy­lum-seek­ers.

De­spite ap­pear­ances, this is not a book for lawyers about a lawyer. That virtue stems from Pelly’s abil­ity to dis­til ac­cu­rately the facts and prin­ci­ples of com­plex lit­i­ga­tion with brevity so that they serve, not dom­i­nate, his ac­count. It is also the char­ac­ters at play that fre­quently pro­vide the colour: a cast of lawyers, politi­cians, rogues and celebri­ties, such as ac­tress Kate Fitzpatrick, who mem­o­rably de­scribed Glee­son as “the sex­i­est man I ever met”. Glee­son thought her taste “dis­cern­ing”.

What also leav­ens the le­gal record are the vignettes of home life folded into the nar­ra­tive. There are de­light­fully in­con­gru­ous anec­dotes through­out the book, with Glee­son en­joy­ing a vic­tory in the High Court as a ju­nior coun­sel only for his wife to re­veal on the fol­low­ing page how nerves meant “a cou­ple of times he threw up” on the way to work. In another part it is ev­i­dent his oft-quoted and en­dur­ing ded­i­ca­tion to the rule of law did not ex­tend to the home. His daugh­ter hu­mor­ously quotes him as ex­plain­ing that his chil­dren were not in a democ­racy and he was their “benev­o­lent despot”.

The pre­vi­ous High Court chief jus­tice to be

Mur­ray Glee­son with his grand­chil­dren at a cer­e­mony mark­ing his re­tire­ment from the High Court

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