Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 4, 1999
Lawyers stick up for Abella
Ont. appeal court justice draws fire for addressing Catholic lawyers' guild
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
What's a nice Jewish girl like Justice Rosalie Abella of the Ontario Court of Appeals doing in a place like Alberta?
"There's a magazine with the same name of your province that's asking the same question," Abella said to a group of 130 legal professionals at the annual Red Mass dinner Sept. 23.
The day before Abella was to appear as the keynote speaker at the event, hosted by the St. Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Northern Alberta, the latest edition of Alberta Report hit the newsstands with a story under the subheading "Edmonton Catholic lawyers pick a Jewish, feminist charter-careerist for the Red Mass."
"They make that sound like it's a bad thing," said Kathleen Ryan, who attended the event.
The article highlighted Abella's 1995 ruling which lowered the age of consent for sodomy to 14 years, as well as her decision to extend marital benefits to homosexual couples.
Many of the attendees were not put off by the article and had only praise and respect for Abella.
"I thought you were great," said Rosanna Saccomani, an executive committee member of the guild, who introduced herself to Abella after the talk. "I think everyone is entitled to their opinion. . . . But I admire your work, I really enjoyed your talk."
Ryan said those in the legal profession sometimes struggle with their faith and the work they do in their profession because oftentimes the "two do not always intertwine perfectly."
"(Abella's) intelligence as a jurist, the depth and wisdom of her work, it shouldn't be something that's looked at only from a right-wing prospective," Ryan said.
Abella, a devout Jew, was the first Jewish judge in Canada. Her inspiration to become a lawyer leads back to 1950 when she and her family immigrated to Canada from Germany and her lawyer father was not allowed to practise here because of his immigrant status.
A graduate of the University of Toronto Law School, she also holds 16 honourary doctorates and has held membership on several committees and boards.
Event co-organizer Christine Felix added, "They're looking at the negatives when there is so much more. She's just an amazing person."
Felix said the organizers chose Abella as the guest speaker because of her extensive list of credentials and work on human rights issues.
The Red Mass is an annual spiritual celebration for Catholic lawyers. Its origin dates to the middle of the 13th century in Western Europe. It is a celebration of the legal profession and a tribute to its patron saint, Thomas More, whose famous last words before being executed were "I die the king's good servant, but God's first."
About 300 people attended the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Collins at St. Joseph's Basilica. In his homily, Collins emphasized the value of ethics in the legal professions, the same value displayed by More.
"Integrity is to be an integer, to be one, in one piece," Collins said. "Not divided or fractured.
"Integrity is the single virtue of the legal profession. . . . St. Thomas More was a man of true integrity. He simply was who he said he was. He was crystal clear."
Collins asked each "person involved in the legal profession, that they may serve rightly and truly and serve with that integrity."
In her talk Abella also praised St. Thomas More, not only for his work but also his character.
"How he lived and what he wrote is held in high esteem," she said.
As Lord Chancellor of England in the court of King Henry VIII, More resigned rather than support the divorce of the king and Catherine of Aragon. He was later found guilty of treason.
In More's book Utopia there is no need for lawyers. Everyone was an expert in interpreting the law and could judge their own acts for the common good.
"That's probably why in the Old Testament there is a Book of Judges and no Book of Lawyers," joked Abella.
Abella summarized More as a man who placed his "professionalism over inclination . . . principle over expedience . . . knowledge over parochialism . . . private conscience over public glory . . . and reason over passion."
Abella also touched on the growing criticism of judges' decisions.
"Disagreeing with the result is different than attacking the results," she said.
Whether their decisions are favoured or resented, Abella commends her peers and refers to many of their rulings as "breaking new ground when they interpret the law.
"Judges are in the business of deciding what laws mean and business has never been better."