‘Honourable Mentions’: forgotten justices of the High Court

Knowing our history is an important part of knowing ourselves and where we are going. The following Justices may or may not be noteworthy for their contributions to legal scholarship, but their respective contributions to High Court trivia should not be overlooked.

Albert Piddington

Piddington was appointed alongside Sir Charles Powers (the first solicitor ever appointed to the High Court) as part of the Fisher Government’s highly controversial attempt to flood the Court with Justices who were seen to be sympathetic towards broad interpretation of Commonwealth power. In the wake of strong opposition from the NSW and Victorian Bar Associations, Piddington resigned from the Court prior to taking his seat – the only Justice to do so to this day. For this he was labelled a “panic-stricken boy” by Commonwealth Attorney-General Billy Hughes.

Sir Hayden Starke

Possibly the most colourful member of the High Court, Starke had a reputation for directness and was once described by former Justice Michael McHugh as a “formidable individualist” for his propensity to turn up without notice to hear cases for which he was not listed. He is rumoured to have refused to speak with Herbet Evatt and to have described other colleagues on the Court as “parrots” and “worms” in thrall to Sir Owen Dixon. Legend also has it that Starke once asked rhetorically of fellow Justice Sir George Rich (who was by then in his eighties) whether it was worth Rich going home from the cemetery after the funeral of Sir Isaac Isaacs.

Sir Edward McTiernan

McTiernan’s claim to fame is undoubtedly his 46 years on the High Court – making him the longest serving Justice in the Court’s history. According to legend, McTiernan only left the Court in 1976 because then Chief Justice Garfield Barwick refused to include a wheelchair ramp in the design of the new High Court building. Central to this untimely end to McTiernan’s career was an incident involving an ill-fated attempt to kill a cricket with a rolled-up newspaper that left him wheelchair bound.

Dr Herbert Evatt

The youngest-ever Justice, although a renown intellect, it is theorised that he grew disinterested with the work of the Court. Chief Justice Dixon is reported to have once observed of Evatt that he was “full of antagonism to the respondent [and m]ost unjudicial” during hearing of Australian Woollen Mills v The Commonwealth. After less than 10 years on the Court, Evatt resigned to stand for Commonwealth Parliament. He went on to become Leader of the ALP in Opposition and President of the UN General Assembly.

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