Winston Churchill said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
I was reminded of this as I attended a moving and joyful swearing-in ceremony of two new judges of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on May 21.
These occasions are so meaningful and emotional for the new appointees. They have reached the pinnacle of our profession and have a few moments in the limelight to address family, friends and colleagues, old and new.
It is a singularly momentous time when they take on the sash, mount the dais and speak to those assembled personally, from the heart, about their journey to their new station in life and their roles going forward.
It takes great courage to properly embrace the occasion and share what it means to realize your silent dreams but face the reality of what is ahead.
A new and very different form of courage awaits — as Churchill explains — one that demands sitting down and listening.
It is too bad that the general public these men and women will serve, and on occasion, sit in judgment of, are not aware of the intensity, emotion, beauty, humility and dedication that is evident when a new judge takes the oath.
To lawyers, it is a joyful day and often a chance of renewed energy in appreciation of how fundamentally precious the rule of law, our democracy and our remarkable system of justice is, as we entrust it to a carefully selected few.
These people — our Judges — are, by and large, incredibly accomplished citizens of our nation. We trust them with enormous power. We arm them with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and cloak them with the responsibility to balance reason and passion for all who come before them.
We listen intently to their words on these enormously significant days to ensure their dedication to honour and protect the remarkable system that we, as lawyers, support every day in our professional lives.
This swearing in reminded me of how lucky we are in this country to have such remarkable judges. They are often criticized and undermined for political agendas. They are often branded as ivory tower dwellers, with heads in the clouds, isolated from accountability and everyday problems. Then from those clouds, for example, emerges a remarkably elegant man, Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon, who publicly shared his periodic struggles with stress and depression. His unselfish act helped lift the stigma of mental illness for so many who suffer in silence and elevated and enhanced the judicial office he held.
In their courtrooms, judges are tasked with interpreting and adapting our laws and guiding our everyday lives.
These days, our nation is like a ship on stormy seas, facing ever-changing and disruptive waves. We need steady judicial hands at the till to help navigate our way out of the storms that surround us.
We expect judges to temper arbitrary government interference in the lives of communities and individual citizens. We demand that they uphold the presumption of innocence and important principles and procedures in criminal justice.
They are asked to accommodate a workable balance in the recognition of Indigenous reconciliation and arbitrate interprovincial and international disputes and obligations. They are being asked to find the political balance in the fight against climate change and the development of natural resources.
They are trusted to guide property disputes, the regulation of commerce and the chaos after family disintegrations. They must be equipped to anticipate and understand artificial intelligence, social media and find acceptable limits on individual freedoms.
In effect, judges are asked to listen, and then with wisdom and patience, decide almost every aspect of our lives in this great democracy.
Mark Twain once wrote: “A good lawyer knows the law; a clever one takes the judge to lunch.” This humour is witty and infectious, but the beauty of it is that we in Canada know — joyfully — that it just doesn’t work that way.
We have and have had remarkable judges in all levels of court throughout this country. I asked perhaps one of the most respected and revered, former Ontario chief justice Patrick LeSage, one question: “If you had one sentence to describe the role of judges, what would it be?” Without a second of hesitation he said, “To respect each and every person who enters the courtroom.”
I think Canadians have an ingrained, quiet trust and respect for the judiciary. I suspect that all judges try to emulate LeSage’s approach. No wonder these swearings in are often odes to joy.