LONDON – Trailblazing feminist judge Brenda Hale used her valedictory speech as president of the UK Supreme Court on Wednesday to call for the judiciary to remain free from US-style political influence and to poke fun at enduring sexism in the legal world.
State-school educated Hale, 74, rose to the top of a profession dominated by men who went to elite private schools. She was the first female member of the Law Lords, the precursor to the Supreme Court, and subsequently the first female justice of the Supreme Court and its first woman president.
She grabbed the international spotlight in September when she delivered a devastating ruling against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, annulling his decision to suspend parliament at a crucial moment in the Brexit process.
Some irate Brexit supporters accused the Supreme Court of meddling in politics, although Hale had been at pains to make clear that the court was making no judgment on the merits of Brexit and merely addressing legal issues.
In a short speech at a ceremony to mark her retirement from the court, Hale stressed the apolitical nature of the court.
“We do not know one another’s political opinions, although occasionally we may have a good guess, and long may that remain so,” she said.
“Judges have not been appointed for party political reasons in this country since at least the Second World War. We do not want to turn into the Supreme Court of the United States, whether in powers or in process of appointment,” she added.
After his defeat in the Supreme Court, Johnson failed to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31, as he had repeatedly promised to do. However, he won a commanding majority in parliament in a general election last week, and is now poised to lead Britain out of the European Union by Jan. 31.
His election manifesto pledged in vague terms that after Brexit, his government would look at the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts, prompting speculation that he would try to curb Supreme Court powers.
If he does, he is likely to encounter stiff resistance from Hale’s successor, Robert Reed, who in his speech at the ceremony praised her handling of the case on the suspension of parliament as her greatest achievement as Supreme Court president.
Reed said that the large spider brooch she wore to deliver that ruling, which attracted widespread comment, had become “a symbol of swashbuckling womanhood”.
An habitual wearer of insect-themed brooches, Hale opted on Wednesday for what appeared to be a large winged beetle. Several women lawyers attending the event wore spider brooches in homage to Hale, who they described as a role model.
Known for her feminist views, Hale used the occasion to make light-hearted but pointed remarks about the attitudes of some of the men in her professional life.
“Some stereotyping lived on,” she said. “Why else was I put in charge of art and interiors when we moved into this building while others were in charge of the more serious business of funding, staffing and security?”
She also upbraided some of the lawyers who have appeared before the court over the years for addressing her and her fellow justices as “My Lords”.
“Sadly there are still counsel in this court who fail to realize they are addressing a mixed bench,” she said.