The most powerful judge Australia is a woman who dropped out of high school.
Susan Kiefel in January will become the next chief justice of the High Court of Australia. Her appointment, announced Tuesday by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis, marks the first time that a woman will preside over the country’s highest court.
When the Prime Minister phoned to lock in Susan Kiefel as the next chief justice of the High Court, both knew they were making history.
“How do you feel about breaking the glass ceiling?” Malcolm Turnbull said, formally offering her the $486,000-a-year position as the nation’s top judge.
Justice Kiefel, 62, replied as only a black-letter lawyer would. “He congratulated me and said this was a historic moment for women … to which I said, I regarded it as more of a natural progression,” she told The Australian.
Justice Kiefel, first appointed to the court in 2007, is the country’s 13th chief justice since the High Court was established in 1903. High Court justices are formally appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the attorney-general with approval of the prime minister’s cabinet.
In a 2007 profile, the Sydney Morning Herald described Justice Kiefel as an independent-minded conservative who cut her own path:
Despite being one of the brighter students at Sandgate State High on Brisbane’s north side, she left school at 15 to go to business college. Kiefel’s father confesses this was his idea. “I thought she’d end up the usual way with women: she’d go to school, become a secretary or typist, get married and have children, settle down and rear a family,” he says of his daughter, who was nicknamed “Soony” as a child.
Kiefel had other ambitions. As her father tells it, sitting there typing up barristers’ opinions at her rapid-fire 90-words-a-minute pace, “she thought if they can do this, I can do it”. Thirty years later, Kiefel would tell school students: “You can usually do whatever you determine to do. The constraints and limits placed on a person’s life and career usually come from themselves.”
She would later earn a high school certificate, land a job as a law clerk and complete her law degree while studying at night. At the age of 21, she was admitted to the Queensland Bar.
Her rise is the most visible example of women joining the senior ranks of Australia’s legal profession, a trend she observed in a 2014 essay she co-authored.
The news of her appointment came just days after Justice Kiefel suffered a personal tragedy. Last week in the city of Darwin, her older brother Russell, a well-known Australian soap opera and theater actor, was performing on stage in a play when he collapsed and later died.