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.