Osgoode’s Distinguished Speaker Series: Justice L’Heureux-Dubé

“Don’t work for money, work for justice—you will make money anyway but the focus is quite different.”

Between 2:00pm and 4:30pm on Monday, March 11, some variation of this quote reverberated throughout Osgoode via Twitter and Facebook. Osgoode’s Distinguished Speaker Series welcomed Justice L’Heureux-Dubé, and her presence was both captivating and refreshing. It was inspiring to hear the passion with which she spoke about the law, as well as the confidence with which she spoke her mind.

Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s talk gave me pause to reflect on what it means to be a part of the legal profession—specifically, what it means to render justice. The concept of “justice” is as significant as it is elusive; the contours of justice can be filled out by viewing a situation from a variety of different angles and the conclusion that justice was, or was not, done may depend not only on the context but also (and perhaps more so) on the eye of the beholder. When Justice L’Heureux-Dubé says “work for justice,” what does this mean? It would be extremely ambitious to try and tackle this question at all, let alone in one post, but I’d like to highlight the comments Justice L’Heureux-Dubé made which resonated with me and leave the answer to the justice question to your own individual musings.

One theme of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s talk which became very clear throughout the interactive session was her confidence in both herself and in others to make a difference. In both her conduct, and in giving us advice, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé sent the message that we should be confident in the value of our own beliefs about the law and about those issues with impassion us. In law school, it is very easy to develop a sense of inferiority and question the beliefs we hold; beliefs which, at one point, may have been very clear. Some of this can be good: having our beliefs challenged may result in a transformative change or it may result in a strengthened connection to those beliefs. A problematic consequence, however, would result if the sense of inferiority lead us to believe that our opinions didn’t matter. Sometimes, speaking our mind on issues that matter can get very tiring when it feels like we are yelling at a brick wall; more tiring still is the experience of those who need more voices yelling on their behalf to knock that brick wall down. Had Justice L’Heureux-Dubé not been confident in the power of her own voice to make a difference, we may not have had a Supreme Court justice that stressed the importance of recognizing the impact of the feminization of poverty in family law or the rights of sexual assault victims. From Justice L’Heureux-Dube’s perspective, judges do not vacate their values when they sit to decide a case. Indeed, one of the reasons Justice L’Heureux-Dubé was respected and revered as a judge was because she had strong opinions about the pursuit of justice and brought those to the Court. Justice L’Heureux-Dubé told us that if we were all judges tomorrow, we’d be the same people we are today. She spoke about this positively because, although she emphasized the necessity of allowing judges to be “a step back” from the people who come before our courts, “you wouldn’t want to be judged by angels would you?”

In this way, she emphasized the importance of social context. Not only are judges embedded in a social context, but they must also seek to understand the lived experience of those who come before our courts. She stated that in many instances, especially in cases involving family law, she could relate to the people before her because she had been “in the trenches”. She told a story about coming before a judge when she was acting for a woman in a divorce case during a time when judges were not awarding significant amounts of money for spousal support. She asked this particular judge whether he knew how much a pint of milk cost and he said he didn’t because his wife did all the shopping. She told him that perhaps, before determining the amount of spousal support, he should go shopping.

Pursuing justice requires that both judges and lawyers seek to understand the lived experience of those who come through the judicial system. This emphasis on social context led to a discussion about the need for diversity on the bench. It is important to recognize that “diversity” can have different meanings. One way of thinking about diversity is in terms of visibility. Many people advocate visible diversity because of the belief that women, for example, will decide cases differently than men as a result of gender differences. More women on the bench, however, does not guarantee more feminists on the bench; simply because a judge is a woman does not mean her way of thinking through legal issues is pre-determined. Diversity shouldn’t just mean the presence of visible differences amongst members of the judiciary; it should also mean diversity of experiences, realities, perspectives, beliefs, and values. Whether diversity is somewhat diminished through the study of law (as in, the study of law trains students to think the same way) is a matter for another post. Suffice it to say that diversity means (or should mean) having a judiciary and a legal profession that visibly reflects both the society in which we live and the multitude of perspectives within society.

If it wasn’t already clear from her judgments, it became clear during the discussion that Justice L’Heureux-Dubé was not afraid of being candid regarding her opinions about the legal profession, justice, and the future of the Supreme Court. When asked whether she worried about being chastised for being so candid she said quite pointedly, “I don’t give a shit.”

I’d like to conclude with the following quote which I believe embodies the theme of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s talk:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive”

It is safe to say that Justice L’Heureux-Dubé came alive through the practice of law and, as such, the legal profession—and society as a whole—is significantly better for it.

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