By Claire Zillman
July 26, 2017

There was a big piece of news out of the U.K. on Friday that I haven’t properly addressed yet: Brenda Hale was appointed the first female president of the U.K. Supreme Court.

It’s a crowning achievement for a woman who has spent her decades-long career attaining female first after female first.

Hale’s career started at the University of Manchester where she was a junior lecturer on the law faculty. When she was appointed a high court judge in 1994, she was the first to have achieved the honor as an academic rather than a practicing barrister. In 1999, she was just the second woman seated on the court of appeal, and in 2004 she was named the first female Law Lord. In 2009, she made history yet again as the first woman justice of the Supreme Court. Now she’ll be its president.

Following the announcement on Friday, some sought to downplay Hale’s gender, with one (male) barrister tweeting that her sex should be ignored “for a sec.”

“Brenda Hale is a great judge. She writes clearly, is principled, is respected by other judges.”

Surely that is true, but Hale has herself cited the gender and ethnic makeup of judges as a matter of democracy.

“We are the instrument by which the will of Parliament and government is enforced upon the people,” she said in 2004. “It does matter that judges should be no less representative of the people than the politicians and civil servants who govern us.”

She has not always been so diplomatic, at one point bashing the institutional bias that’s produced a judiciary that’s “not only mainly male, overwhelmingly white but also largely the product of a limited range of educational institutions and social backgrounds.” (As a graduate of Cambridge, Hale, a family law expert, has acknowledged that she personally benefited from this system.)

Yet, during her eight-year tenure as the only woman on the Supreme Court bench—the court is finally getting its second-ever female justice in October—her presence no doubt colored the court’s stance on big-ticket decisions. In 2011, for instance, she delivered a lead judgement ruling that said the definition of domestic violence should not be limited to physical abuse.

Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society that advocates for equality, has cheered Hale’s appointment—not just because she’s a woman, “but because her judgments often reflect a true understanding of women’s lives and the violence and discrimination they experience.”

 

@clairezillman

 

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