One court. Eight voices
The current Supreme Court is composed of eight judges with different qualities and backgrounds
The judges of the Supreme Court: top row, from left, Susan Denham, the chief justice, Frank Clarke, Liam McKechnie and Donal O’Donnell. Bottom row, from left, Nial Fennelly, Adrian Hardiman, John Mac Menamin and John Murray. Illustrations: Eoin Coveney
Since her appointment, at the age of 46, Denham has shown herself a shrewd diplomat and has been a key player behind a series of major reforms in the courts. She chaired the working group that led to the establishment of the Courts Service in 1999 and has long pressed for big changes that now appear to be imminent. These include the establishment of a Judicial Council, the easing of the in-camera rule for family law proceedings and, most significant of all, the creation of a new Court of Appeal.
In two decades on the court, Denham has built up a reputation for liberal judgments. She gave the sole dissenting judgment in the Attorney General and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children v Open Door Counselling, where the society sought to prevent the counselling service from offering abortion advice. She also dissented in TD v Minister for Education in 2001, where a majority on the court held the High Court had been wrong to direct the State to act on a pledge to build and open a number of secure units for vulnerable children.
Denham’s calm, collegiate style sets the tone of the current Supreme Court. While some within the judiciary wanted her, and other senior judges, to take a stronger line in public during the recent standoff with the Government, she was widely seen as having defused the row in such a way that neither side was seen to have conceded.
The eldest child of the former editor of The Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, Denham comes from a family with a tradition of both non-conformism and public service. Her speeches and judgments frame reform of the courts as being in the service of society, and stress the Constitution’s role, not as a narrow rulebook but as the expression of principles that guide the community.
On her appointment as Chief Justice, Denham announced she would not be taking the €38,000 increase in salary that goes with the position.
Her father, from a Belfast Protestant family, served in the Army before entering journalism, and her maternal grandfather, Seán Lester, was the last secretary general of the League of Nations.
“Hurry, hurry, vote for Murray!” That was John Murray’s slogan when he ran for election to the Student Representative Council in UCD in the mid-1960s. He went on to become president of the Union of Students in Ireland, in which capacity he attended a conference of the communist-led International Union of Students in Ulan Bator. According to the journalist Vincent Browne, who was in UCD at the same time, Murray was “believed to have been the first Jesuit-educated Fianna Fáil Limerick man ever to have visited Outer Mongolia on a travel grant. Unknown to him, it was almost certainly paid for by the KGB.”
Murray comes from a middle-class Limerick family with Fianna Fáil connections. His father was a civil servant and later a builder, and his mother was a teacher, though she had to give up her job on marriage.
He was attorney general three times in governments led by Charles Haughey, and served in the European Court from 1991 until he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1999, a move that was seen as strengthening the court’s European experience. He was made chief justice in 2004, a position he held until 2011 when, with the introduction of a new seven-year term-of-office, he reverted to being an ordinary member of the court.
Having been active in politics and involved in a succession of high-profile cases, Hardiman was one of the most prominent lawyers in Ireland when he was appointed directly from the Bar to the Supreme Court in 2000, aged 49.
Hardiman was born in Coolock, Dublin, in 1951. His father was a teacher and president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland. He was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and studied history at UCD, where his friends included his current colleagues Frank Clarke and John Mac Menamin, before attending the King’s Inns. He has a passion for history, speaks fluent Irish and has published on James Joyce.
Hardiman was involved in student politics and stood unsuccessfully for Fianna Fáil at the local elections in Dún Laoghaire in 1985. Later, along with another of his UCD contemporaries, Michael McDowell, he was a founding member of the Progressive Democrats.
Pugnacious in court, trenchant, stylish and occasionally polemical in his judgments, Hardiman is the closest the court has to a 19th-century liberal. He is progressive on social issues, protective of civil liberties and individual freedoms and hostile to any attempt by the State to over-extend the limits of its role. He is married to the retired judge, Yvonne Murphy.
Although he keeps a lower profile than some of his colleagues, Fennelly, a calm, courteous and experienced jurist, is an influential figure on the court. From Kilkenny, he was educated at Clongowes Wood College and took a degree in economics at UCD before going on to King’s Inns.
He chaired both the Bar Council and the Legal Aid Board, from which he resigned in 1989 in protest at the way the State-funded civil legal service was being starved of resources. Politically, he was thought to be close to Fine Gael.
Fennelly was the first Irish lawyer to be appointed to the position of Advocate General at the European Court of Justice, where he served from 1995 until he was called back to Dublin to join the Supreme Court in 2000.
He has dissented in a number of high-profile cases, including that taken by the Equality Authority against Portmarnock Golf Club. By a three to two majority, the court sided with Portmarnock, with Fennelly and Denham in dissent.
In 2003, he dissented, along with Catherine McGuinness, when the court, by a five-to-two majority, said that the non-Irish parents of Irish-born children were not entitled to live in this country by virtue of having an Irish-born child.
Fennelly’s European experience has been a significant influence on him and on the court, and with both he and Murray due to retire within two years, a clear gap in expertise will open up.
When he was a barrister, one of the cassettes Donal O’Donnell would play on a loop during his daily commute was a six-tape collection of live recordings from the US Supreme Court in session. The story of O’Donnell unwinding to the sound of a court transcript, often retold in the law library, speaks to two popular impressions of this brilliant lawyer. First, he “eats, sleeps and breathes the law”, as one friend puts it. Second, he is steeped in, and heavily influenced by, US legal history. O’Donnell was a constitutional expert and a star of the Law Library when he was appointed directly from the Bar to the Supreme Court in 2010. As a senior counsel, there was scarcely a high-profile case involving the State where he was not also involved, normally on the side of the government.
The Belfast native appeared for the State when it argued against a challenge to the differentiation between males and females in the law relating to underage sex.
He also represented the State in the challenge to the Oireachtas inquiry into Judge Brian Curtin, and in the attempt of Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone to have their Canadian marriage recognised.
O’Donnell’s father, Turlough O’Donnell, was a member of the Northern Ireland High Court and the Court of Appeal between 1971 and 1990. His brother, also Turlough, is a senior counsel.
Humane, sensible, down-to-earth: some of the terms most commonly used to describe Liam McKechnie’s approach as a judge, first at the High Court and, since 2010, on the Supreme Court. From a modest background in Cork, McKechnie was educated at Presentation Brothers College, UCC and King’s Inns. He was called to the bar in 1972 and became a senior counsel in 1987, practising in commercial, chancery and local-authority law.
McKechnie was elected chairman of the Bar Council in 1999 and was appointed as a judge of the High Court in 2000. There, one of his most prominent cases was that of Lydia Foy. McKechnie ruled the Civil Registration Act 2004, which did not permit the issuing of a new birth certificate to Lydia Foy, a transsexual, was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
McKechnie also took the “Mr G” case, where he ruled that an unmarried father whose estranged partner brought the children to Britain without his consent, had substantial rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“He is tremendously fair, tremendously pleasant,” says one senior counsel. “He is genuinely open-minded.”
After almost 20 years as a senior counsel, Clarke was head-hunted in 2004 for the High Court by the Fianna Fáil/PD coalition. Known for his skilful handling of complex commercial cases – he has a degree in maths and economics from UCD – he dealt with some of the biggest cases linked to the economic collapse, including the unsuccessful application for examinership by the property developer Liam Carroll.
Clarke was born in Walkinstown, Dublin, in 1951. He was educated at Drimnagh Castle CBS and was the first member of his family to go to third-level. In his public speeches, he has expressed strong views on the importance of helping and encouraging young people from different social backgrounds to pursue legal careers.
Clarke was close to Fine Gael. He wrote speeches for Garret FitzGerald and was election agent for the former Fine Gael TD George Bermingham, who is now a High Court judge. He also ran unsuccessfully for the Seanad in the 1980s.
As a barrister, Clarke was twice appointed by the Supreme Court to present arguments on Bills referred to it by the president. He also acted as counsel to the Public Accounts Committee during the “Dirt inquiry” and was external counsel to the Laffoy and Ryan inquiries into child abuse.
Clarke is married to the Trinity College political scientist Jacqueline Hayden. He is a regular at race meetings and a Leinster rugby season-ticket holder.
John Mac Menamin
The careers of John Mac Menamin and Frank Clarke have advanced along a strikingly similar trajectory. They met at UCD, where Mac Menamin studied history. Together they got involved in the L&H debating society, worked for Fine Gael politicians and were called to the Bar in the early 1970s. They were appointed to the High Court by a Fianna Fáil, PD coalition on the same day in 2004, and to the Supreme Court, again on the same day, by the Government in March 2012.
As a barrister, Mac Menamin had a wide practice that included commercial law, insurance and defamation. He represented the Sunday Independent in the Proinsias De Rossa libel trial, and was legal adviser to the Medical Council. He appeared for a number of clients before the Flood/Mahon Tribunal and was elected chairman of the Bar Council in 1997-99.
Mac Menamin wrote speeches for a number of senior Fine Gael figures, including Garret FitzGerald. Many believed that, had Michael Noonan become taoiseach, Mac Menamin would have been a frontrunner for the post of Attorney General.
A respected High Court judge, he dealt with a number of human rights-related cases, such as the rights of asylum seekers, children needing special care, prisoners and unmarried fathers. One of his most high-profile cases was that of Tristan Dowse, where he ruled that a couple who adopted an Indonesian boy and sought to return him to the orphanage had obligations to him until he was an adult.
Mac Menamin is married to Lia O’Hegarty, former counsel to the Oireachtas and a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission.