By Elizabeth Byrne, originally published, by ABC on the 28th of September.
The stark difference between the United States Supreme Court and the Australian High Court has been laid bare, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Compared to Australia’s highest court, the US seems a completely different universe.
Ginsburg’s death on September 18 generated a tremendous outpouring of grief among many Americans.
Dubbed the “Notorious RBG” (in a nod to rapper Notorious BIG), with mugs, T-shirts and tote bags across the globe bearing her image — something Ginsburg herself found quite amusing — the Supreme Court justice was celebrated for her defence of the rights of women and minorities.
As Professor Helen Irving, a constitutional law expert from the University of Sydney explains, she was a highly revered figure in the US, with a kind of celebrity status that had increased significantly in the last few years.
It is difficult to imagine a justice from the High Court of Australia being celebrated in quite the same way.
“There’d been a movie about her, and a documentary … and she had attained something of a sort of super-human status,” Professor Irving said.
US President Donald Trump is now preparing to endorse conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, his third appointment to the Supreme Court, amid the controversy and highly public scrutiny of the US Senate.
Simultaneously, Australia is preparing to replace two positions on its High Court bench.
Justices Jeffrey Nettle and Virginia Bell will both turn 70 in the next few months, giving the federal government a rare opportunity to reshape the court.
According to constitutional law expert Professor George Williams, from the University of New South Wales, the new judges will find a much quieter path to the bench, than their US counterparts.
“Those judges must be confirmed by a senate and can be asked questions in a way that can be witnessed by the whole nation,” he said.
“By contrast the Australian system is secretive and has no public element.”
The first we will know about the appointments of Australia’s new High Court justices, will be when the government announces them.
“They need to consult the states — but otherwise, it is a decision within their gift, that they can make alone,” Professor Williams said.
How the government will make its choices is up for debate.
“What you’ve got to guess is a matter of geography, personal friendships and a sense of where the government wants to head,” Professor Williams said.
If the government’s reaction to the recent High Court decision, that Aboriginal non-citizens can not be deported is a guide, the next choices will most likely be conservative.
Names being thrown around in legal circles include Federal Court justices Jayne Jagot and Jonathan Beach, and Mark Leeming from the New South Wales Court of Appeal.
One school of thought is that, because the outgoing judges are from Victoria and New South Wales, that is where the next two judges will come from.
Professor Williams said there were other important factors to be considered.
“One of the issues with the court is that it hasn’t been very diverse,” he said.
“We now have many women that have been appointed, but no representation of people from different cultural backgrounds.
“Or even if you look at geography, we’ve had 53 judges appointed to the High Court — but not one ever from South Australia or Tasmania.”
It is not clear when the government will announce the names of the two new judges.
But the upcoming appointments have renewed debate over how Australia’s judges are chosen.
Professor Williams is one of many in the legal profession calling for a more transparent system.
“I think we could have a commission that provides independent expert advice to the government about good suitable people to be considered, to assess whether they have the qualities of independence, of legal knowledge and skill,” he said.
“I think it’s up to the government to make the choice, but I think the government can be better informed and the system can be more credible and more transparent than it is now,” he said.