Goodbye Gummow
Friday, October 5, 2012
Justinian in High Court, Judges, William Gummow

Quaint ceremony to say farewell to Bill (The Barometer) Gummow … Slight interruption to the special leave applications … Hutley you're now number three in the list 

Gummow: judges should not overestimate the discretion of their associates

IT was a dry little farewell to one of the greats of the High Court. 

At 9.15am they trooped into court one on the 23rd level of the Queens Square Lubyanka. Hayne, Gummow and Heydon. 

God Save the Queen. 

Gummow with his head down, unhappy that he was to be farewelled. 

Heydon looked pale, as though he might have swallowed a beaker of hemlock. 

Bernie Coles, the local head barman, was on his feet with dates, career path, 8th floor Selborne, impeccable legal reasoning, encyclopaedic knowledge, scholarship, etc, etc. 

He scored a few titters with an historical anecdote. 

"According to Sir Francis Pollock in his correspondence with Oliver Wendell Holmes, when Lord Blackburn retired from the House of Lords he said, 'damn the law' and read nothing thereafter but French novels." 

Not so for Bill Gummow. He's returning to the education sector as a part-time law lecturer at the Uni of Sydney. 

Then it was the turn of the fellow from the solicitors' society. The head solicitor couldn't get there, so it was the number two, whoever he was. 

He said he spoke for 25,000 members and they were all sorry to see HH go. 

Gummow had been a "barometer" and he proceeded to run through half a dozen of his finest decisions. 

By this stage Gummow was looking glazed, Heydon looked as though he was in extreme pain and Hayne was showing off his cufflinks. 

There was a momentary flicker of pleasure on the outgoing judge's face when it was recalled that he had "outlasted his colleagues" on the court. 

On Tuesday (October 9) he returns to the High Court as an ex-judge, for the swearing-in of Stephen Gageler.

With another six retirees he will sit behind the serving judges. The oldies represent a combined 40 years of top-end judging experience, stretching from 1972. 

Gummow spoke. 

It was gratifying to see some of his former associates well-established in the profession. 

They represent a continual process of legal regeneration. 

Indeed, there is nothing more satisfying that sitting on the bench listening to a fresh barrister making a good fist of a complex case. 

In these farewells, he noted, a lot of attributions are wide of the mark. Some of the references are identifiable. For instance, the phrase "knife in a napkin" would have come from Hayne. 

This was getting altogether too obscure to follow. 

He did observe that "primary judges do rather well here". Appeal judges, less so. 

He ended with a memory of a treasured observation, which came from Sir Nigel Bowen when he was chief justice of the Federal Court. 

Bowen had a habit of slipping into court and sitting up the back to listen to a new judge struggling with a case. 

He did so with Gummow and this unnerved him mightily. 

In fact, Gummow has suggested that it might be a strategy that CJ Bathurst of NSW should adopt. 

Anyway, an indiscreet associate told him that Bowen had said:

"Gummow runs a quiet court. I think he'll be able to write too." 

He signed off his 17 years as a High Court justice saying it was time to get on with the special leaves and that Hutley should note that his application had been moved from number five to number three in the list, "for reasons that will soon be painfully apparent". 

It was a low-keyed, parched goodbye. 

His was an extraordinary appointment by the Keating government. A pointy-head commercial type from the Allens' law shop, via the grill and the Federal Court. 

No record as a champion of rights or liberties. Yet Gummow showed himself as the most moral of High Court justices. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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