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Tributes paid as Supreme Court judge Marie Baker retires

Judge from ‘a family of learning, not of privilege’, says Supreme Court is ‘much more reflective of society than it is perceived’

Warm tributes have been paid to Ms Justice Marie Baker who has retired as a Supreme Court judge.

Responding to the tributes in a packed Supreme Court on Monday, Ms Justice Baker, whose parents left school before the Leaving Certificate but encouraged the education of their five children, said she comes from “a family of learning, not of privilege”.

Her late father, a postmaster, believed strongly in “doing the right thing” and public service and would have been pleased personally with her achievements but also “for what it says about Ireland”.

“I don’t come from a privileged background, and I’m a woman, and I’m from Cork, but with all of those disadvantages I managed to enjoy the career that I have had and the privilege of being a judge of the Supreme Court.”

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The facts of her background show the court is “much more reflective of society than it is perceived”, she said. When she came to the Bar 40 years ago, there was one woman High Court judge and almost no women barristers and she was grateful to the women “trailblazers”.

Ms Justice Baker said the gender balance of the judiciary — four of the 10 Supreme Court judges are women and women comprise more than 40 per cent of the judiciary overall — “is now almost right”. The fact is, she said, some gender balance “does enhance the legitimacy of the court and the perception that the court is reflective in some way of the society that it judges”.

Being a judge of the Supreme Court is challenging and rewarding and undoubtedly the best job she has ever done, she said.

It is also a hard job and a solitary one, she said, adding that she was reminded of this when, as a High Court judge, she had to decide on a case where a prisoner went on hunger strike and wanted no intervention. She had concluded that the man’s decision to refuse food and water was valid and should remain operative even if he lost capacity to make such decisions.

Court decisions are very often not popular but it is not the job of the courts to be popular or to reflect popular or current opinion, she said. “Our function is to be legitimate, coherent, consistent, fair, objective and reliable. I hope I have done my job in line with those principles in mind and I hope I have reflected my father’s sense of what is right in doing that.”

Ireland is fortunate to have a judiciary that is respected, she said. Her family last year hosted a woman Afghan judge who fled her country because, by virtue of doing the job she did, her life and the lives of her husband and children were in danger.

That woman now lives in Cork but had lost the job she loved and the opportunity to do that job in accordance with the rule of law as she understood it, Ms Justice Baker said. “We should not take that rule of law and the ability of our judges to do that in any sense for granted.”

The judge, whose husband is dead, thanked her parents, sons Tim and Donal, her siblings, friends, judicial and Bar colleagues and all in the courts who had worked with and for her.

Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell said the court would miss Ms Justice Baker, who studied philosophy before pursuing her law career, on a personal level but also her “clear mind and clear prose”.

Attorney General Rossa Fanning said a sense of public duty motivated Ms Justice Baker’s work and she had brought “intellectual rigour, impartiality and humanity” to her office. Her judgments had contributed much to Irish jurisprudence, including in the areas of probate, personal insolvency and constitutional rights.

Ms Justice Baker, he said, will continue to play a “vital” role as chairwoman of the Electoral Commission.

Tributes were also paid by Bar Council chairwoman Sara Phelan SC, Law Society president Barry McCarthy, Courts Service chief executive Angela Denning, Judicial Council secretary Kevin O’Neill and Supreme Court registrar John Mahon.

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