Michael Kirby’s replacement on the High Court is one of the original 1978 Mardi Gras participants.
Justice Virginia Bell, who will be sworn in on 3 February, has been widely praised within the GLBT community as a strong advocate for human rights.
Virginia was an incredibly articulate fighter for what we’d now just call basic human rights, fellow ’78er Ken Davis said.
As a young activist and lawyer Bell, together with the late John Terry, provided legal defence to the 53 people arrested during the first Mardi Gras protest and went on to protest the charges and continued police harassment against gays, women and blacks under the Summary Offences Act.
Before joining the bench she also joined protests for equal rights, anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.
Sydney councillor and fellow ’78er Meredith Burgmann said Bell came to the protests as a feminist but was dedicated to righting wrongs against all victims.
I was bailing people out and she was acting for them. She’s incredibly good with words and she was a great spokesman for the campaigns she worked on, Burgmann said.
They later worked together on a number of other feminist campaigns including Women Behind Bars.
If you look at her entire career it’s always been about righting wrongs, in an activist role, in a judicial role. Even as the Late Night Live host the issues she raised as a journalist were also social justice issues. She’s also incredibly funny.
As Kirby’s replacement Burgmann said Bell would bring different skills to the High Court, but had the same strong social conscience.
BGF CEO Bev Lange added it was great to see the court better reflect the gender diversity of the community.
The women closest to Bell during the protests declined to comment beyond saying the appointment was well-deserved.
It is a great day for Australia that such a talented woman and judge is appointed to the High Court, fellow ’78er Julie McCrossin said.
The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby also praised Bell’s appointment and the legacy of the man she will replace.
We sincerely appreciate the human rights culture Justice Kirby has created in Australia and also internationally. He’s been an outstanding role-model for GLBT Australians in his work and in his commitment to social justice, Lobby spokesman Peter Johnson said.
Kirby was honoured in the SameSame 25 list of the most influential gay and lesbian Australians for the second time on Tuesday.
He is stepping down six weeks before the compulsory retirement age of 70. Earlier this year he said he would retire when the Rudd Government amended Commonwealth superannuation laws to treat his partner, Johan van Vloten, the same as a spouse. The Governor-General gave royal assent to those laws this month.
Addressing a graduation ceremony at Griffith University this week, Kirby said legal practitioners had an obligation to stand up for human rights.
We must be a voice for the voiceless, protectors of the weak and the vulnerable. With our privileges and gifts, go great duties and obligations, he reportedly said.
Australian democracy is not merely a rule of majorities … Majorities can certainly err. They have done so in the past. They will do so again.
Have your say: Could any judge replace Michael Kirby as an advocate for the rights of GLBT people? Tell us at www.starobserver.com.au.