The Turnbull government has appointed Justice Susan Kiefel as the Chief Justice of the High Court.
Kiefel was first appointed to the High Court in 2007 by the Howard government. She is the longest-serving member of the court and will become the 13th Chief Justice, the first woman Chief Justice and the fourth Chief Justice from Queensland. She will replace Chief Justice Robert French, who was appointed by the Rudd government in 2008.
Kiefel’s appointment means that all three arms – parliament, executive and judicial – of the Australian political system will now have been led by a woman.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis also announced that James Edelman will fill the vacant position on the court. Edelman, has been a judge of the Federal Court since 2015, after serving as a Justice of the Western Australian Supreme Court since 2011. He is a former Professor of Law at Oxford University.
Edelman is 42. He turns 43 on January 9. When he is sworn in on January 30, he will become the fourth youngest Justice of the Court, just behind Sir Owen Dixon, who was 42 years, 9 months and 7 days old when he was appointed in 1929.
The youngest ever Justice of the High Court was the future ALP leader Dr. H.V. Evatt, who was 36 years, 7 months and 19 days old when he was appointed on December 19, 1930. The second youngest was Edward McTiernan, who was 38 years, 10 months and 4 days old when he was appointed on December 20, 1930. McTiernan holds the record as the longest-serving justice – he remained on the bench for 46 years until 1976.
The constitutionally mandated retirement age of 70 years means that Edelman potentially has a 27-year career ahead of him. He will have to retire in January 2044. Kiefel can serve until January 17, 2024.
Kiefel’s appointment was widely expected. Senator Brandis said she was “highly favoured” by state governments and the legal profession during consultations. The Opposition’s shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, supported the appointments, saying both were “highly deserved”.
No more appointments to the High Court are due during this parliamentary term. Depending on election timing, there will likely be two appointments in the next parliament, with Justice Geoffrey Nettle due to retire in December 2020 and Justice Virginia Bell in March 2021. Justice Patrick Keane has to retire in October 2022.
- Listen to PM Turnbull and A-G Brandis announce the appointments (12m – transcript below)
- Watch the press conference (12m)
- High Court of Australia
- Full List of Present and Previous Justices of the High Court
Transcript of joint press conference with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis.
TURNBULL: I’m delighted to be here with the Attorney to announce the appointment of the next Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. And we are delighted to announce that the Governor General has accepted the advice of the Government to appoint Her Honour Justice Susan Mary Kiefel as the next Chief Justice, the 13th Chief Justice of Australia, and the first woman to hold that role.
Justice Kiefel is the senior judge of the High Court after Chief Justice, Justice Robert French, who is retiring, as you know, and we thank him for his many years of judicial service.
Susan Kiefel’s story is one that is an inspiration. She left school at 15. She began her working life as a legal secretary. She studied for her completion of her high school qualifications part-time. She studied law part-time through the Barristers Admission Board, and she was admitted to the Bar in 1975. She then went on after practising at the Bar to win a Master of Laws at the University of Cambridge. She took silk in 1987, the first woman in Queensland to do so and in 1993 she became the first woman to be appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland.
She has been one of Australia’s most outstanding judicial officers. Her appointment crowns a great career with even greater judicial service yet to come in this most important role.
So we congratulate Justice Kiefel on this appointment and we thank her for agreeing to undertake it.
Now, this of course creates a vacancy in the court because the Governor General has agreed to appoint one of the existing judges as Chief Justice.
We can announce today again, we’re very pleased to announced that the new Judge of the High Court will be Justice James Edelman.
He is one of the most outstanding legal minds of his generation.
He was born on the 9th of January 1974, so he is a different generation to most of the other judges of the High Court. But he was a Professor of Law at Oxford at the age of 34 – quite precocious. He became a judge in Western Australia in 2011, where he sat on the Supreme Court of Western Australia, and since 2015 he has been a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. He has distinguished himself by practising at the Western Australian Bar and indeed at the London Bar. And as I noted, was from 2008 a Professor of the Law of Obligations at the University of Oxford. He has a distinguished career and reputation, both as a barrister, as a legal academic and as a judge.
George and I are delighted, as is the Government, to have been able to recommend his appointment to the Governor General.
So these are two critically important, historic appointments, as all High Court appointments are, to this court which stands at the very apex of our judicial system.
BRANDIS: Thank you, Prime Minister. Can I join with the Prime Minister in congratulating Justice Susan Kiefel upon her appointment as Chief Justice of Australia and Justice James Edelman on his appointment to the High Court of Australia.
Can I also thank the retiring Chief Justice Robert French for a lifetime of service to the judiciary in so many roles. Justice French will be farewelled from the Court next Monday. The new Chief Justice and new Justice will be sworn in on the 30th of January next year.
As the Prime Minister has said, in respect to both the new Chief Justice and the new member of the High Court, these are both outstanding Australians. They are both outstanding judges.
Justice Kiefel’s story is an inspiration. It is a great Australian Story. But one thing that can be said about Justice Kiefel is that every step in her distinguished career is a step that she took on merit, as acknowledged by her peers and colleagues and contemporaries. She will be a great leader of the Court.
Justice James Edelman has an extraordinary life story as well. He is one of Australia’s greatest legal scholars with an international reputation that has combined his role as a legal scholar with a busy practice at the bar, and then a successful judicial career both in Perth on the Supreme Court of Western Australia and on the Federal Court where he sat at the Brisbane Registry of the Court for the last two years. So as a scholar, as a barrister and as a superior court judge, James Edelman has distinguished himself immensely.
I can tell you that I undertook in deciding on the names to take to Cabinet a very exhaustive process of consultation. Of course, all the State Attorneys-General as required by law were consulted. All members of the High Court were consulted. The leaders of the other Australian Federal Courts were consulted. The leaders of the Australian legal profession were consulted.
Justice Kiefel emerged from that process of consultation as the overwhelmingly favoured candidate, as almost the consensus choice of the judiciary and of the profession. So in that sense, this appointment, significant though it is, will come as little surprise to the judiciary and the profession.
Justice Edelman’s name featured very strongly in the consultations as well because his distinguished record as a jurist and a scholar is widely acknowledged.
TURNBULL: Thank you. You know, given we are surrounded here by journalists, George, this reminds me of something Alan Reid, one of the great journalists in this building – well not in this building, in the old building – always used as to say, Alan used to say: “I’m always very polite to cadet reporters in the lift”. And I said: “Why is that Alan?” And he said: “Over the years I’ve found a lot of them end up being my editors”. Well perhaps there are a lot of lawyers that will remember that the paralegals and legal secretaries that they’re working with perhaps may follow now in Susan Keifel’s footsteps; study law, get admitted and become the Chief Justice of Australia.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister the drought continues for South Australia, was there no one who proffered themselves from that state?
TURNBULL: Judicial appointments are made entirely on merit and, of course, we have a wealth of talent in the legal profession. There are many, many, many more judges and lawyers that would be eminently suitable for appointment to the High Court than there are places on the High Court. So we have an abundance of talent in Australia. But there are only a limited number of opportunities at any time. In this case, there was one opportunity for one new judge.
JOURNALIST: Gentlemen, many former Solicitors-General have become High Court Justices. Anthony Mason and Gavan Griffith. Can I ask you Attorney-General, under what circumstances would you lift your legal waiver with regard to the advice accepted from Justin Gleeson ahead of a possible inquiry?
BRANDIS: Well I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. Gavan Griffith actually never was a High Court Judge, through Stephen Gageler, a former Solicitor-General is a member of the current High Court. In relation to what I think you are referring to Andrew, I addressed that matter in the Senate yesterday at great length and I have nothing to add.
JOURNALIST: Are there any circumstances where you would lift the waiver?
BRANDIS: No, I have nothing to add.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what steps have you taken to assure yourself that your Attorney-General hasn’t instructed the Solicitor-General to not convey an argument that may have been persuasive in the High Court?
TURNBULL: The Attorney, as he just noted has addressed all of these matters in his statement in the Senate, which you said was lengthy but I’m sure it was nonetheless captivating?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: It attracted a degree of attention.
TURNBULL: You were characteristically fishing for compliments and I have given you one. [Laughter]
Now we have the party room literally in a few minutes. Phil?
JOURNALIST: Are you planning a reshuffle of your frontbench either before or after Christmas?
TURNBULL: This question is a ritual one always asked of Prime Minister’s at this time of year.
Look at what my frontbench has delivered. Look at what the Cabinet and the Ministry has delivered. Since the election, we said it was going to be a term of delivery and achievement. Look at what we have delivered. Registered Organisations, many people said that it could not be passed. It has passed into law. Perhaps it might have been better if the Labor Party supported it you’d think, particularly with regards to some of the headlines in the papers today about Caesar Melham – they might have been reminded of the importance of ensuring that unions are as accountable to their members as company directors are to their shareholders. That’s what the Registered Organisations Bill does. Perhaps having seen that, perhaps now there is still hope that Labor will mend their ways and support the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
But there has been so much more, the Omnibus Savings Bill, the Superannuation reforms, protecting the volunteer firefighters of the CFA. The Government is governing, we’re leading and we’re delivering. The 45th Parliament is working. Now on that note, we must return.
JOURNALIST: So that’s a no? That’s a no. There is no reshuffle.
TURNBULL: Thank you very much. We have, I have, an excellent Ministry. I am delighted with the hard work my colleagues are undertaking and it is measured in results. The results are building up. We are delivering.
Thank you very much.