There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over Dame Sian Elias’ remarks about the prison muster. Nevertheless, this is what Chief Justices (and their equivalents elsewhere) do from time to time – make pronouncements about the law and the state of the justice system, which carry no policy mandate but tend to get people talking.
I would note that the speech was much broader and more considered than ‘let the prisoners go free’ as it has been dramatised. But that Dame Sian has made a pronouncement so far out of step with government policy and public consciousness demonstrates either a remarkable sense of personal responsibility for the justice system or a desire to legislate from the bench.
There are three ways to slice it:
- The judiciary is right to involve itself in this sort of thing and you agree with the position taken
- The judiciary is right to involve itself in this sort of thing and you disagree with the position taken
- The judiciary is wrong to involve itself in this sort of thing, and should stay the hell out of wider matters of justice regardless
I’m the first, with Toad and most commenters on Eddie’s post on The Standard. Labour Justice spokesperson Lianne Dalziel is too. In another case I might be the second. Danyl Mclauchlan seems to be either in the first or the second; Idiot/Savant and Bomber are clearly the first; Madeleine Flannagan, herself a lawyer, seems somewhat grudgingly to be in the second camp. Peter Cresswell definitely is.
But it’s tricky; the third is a cover for the second. I think Simon Power and Garth McVicar (along with DPF and some stalwarts of the KBR hang’em-flog’em brigade) are taking the third position for rhetorical purposes when, if they were honest, they’d be defending the right of the judiciary to participate in NZ’s discourse of criminal justice but disagreeing with Dame Sian’s argument in this case – the second position. Dean Knight points out that, when it suits, the government does actually consider the judiciary’s views as integral to justice policy.
If the particulars of the Chief Justice’s speech had been different, I reckon they’d be singing from a songsheet other than the one which reads ‘butt out, you lily-livered liberal panty-waist’. Perhaps the one which reads ‘I disagree with your position but, as the head of NZ’s judiciary, you are entitled to take it’.
The flipside, I suppose, is whether those of us who agree with Dame Sian’s general position today would be supportive of her right to take it if we disagreed. We should be; all of us.