Longest Inning as a Judge
by H.R. Khanna,
Judge, Supreme Court of India
Cite as : (1977) 1 SCC (Jour) 1
No one perhaps has had a longer inning as judge of the highest court of the land than Sir Edward Aloysius McTiernan who retired recently as judge of the Australian High Court after serving on the bench of that court for forty-six years.
The Supreme Court of India came into existence twenty-seven years ago in January, 1950, with the coming into force of the Constitution. The longest term for which a judge has so far served on the bench of this Court has not even touched the figure of 12 years. The reason for that is that unlike the judges U.S. Supreme Court and the Australian High Court for whom there is no age of retirement, the judges of the Supreme Court of India retire on attaining the age of sixty-five.
Till about four years ago the longest period for which a judge had served on the U.S. Supreme Court was Justice Stephen J. Field who served from May 20, 1863 to December 1, 1897. His record was surpassed by Justice William O'Douglas who completed, in April 1974, 35 years of service as a judge of that court. April 1974 issue of the "Columbia Law Review" was dedicated to Justice Douglas. This issue contained a large number of articles to commemorate that occasion and amongst the contributories were Earl Warren, former Chief Justice, and Justice Warren Burger, the present Chief Justice of the United States. Justice Douglas has since then retired following a stroke.
Age normally tends to engender respect and longevity inspires veneration. Record-breaking is an interesting event in all spheres of life and the length of tenure on the highest bench of the land is no exception to the rule. It may, therefore, be apposite to refer to the life-sketch of one who set record in this field. Born on February 16, 1892 Sir Edward was called to the New South Wales Bar in 1916. He was Attorney General of New South Wales from 1920 to 1922 and thereafter from 1925 to 1927. During the years 1928-29 Sir Edward was Challis Lecturer in Roman Law in Sydney University. He was appointed judge of the Australian High Court in 1930 and became a Privy Councillor in 1963.
I met Sir Edward at a lunch given by another judge in Sydney Club in July 1975. Sir Edward was then Acting Chief Justice of Australia. After the lunch Sir Edward took me along with himself to his residence at a distance of about 20 miles from Sydney. Though past eighty, I found Sir Edward most agile and during the drive to his residence Sir Edward pointed to the various buildings on the way and gave details of the interest attaching to them. It was also interesting to hear from him some of the anecdotes about the judges from different countries with whom he had come in contact during his long span.
We arrived at the residence of Sir Edward at about 3.30 in the afternoon and were greeted by Lady McTiernan. Sir Edward showed me his library which contained a fine assortment of books on various subjects. Before tea was served Sir Edward and Lady McTiernan took me through the various rooms of their residence and also showed me their back lawn. In one of the rooms I saw a life size portrait in court dress of Sir Edward which had been painted some years earlier. While looking at it I remarked that it was a fine portrait and the painter had done an excellent job. Lady McTiernan, however, observed: "He looks rather stern in the portrait." "Madam", I replied, "I do not know as to what is the position in Australia but in India it is commonly said that judges who are the sternest in court are the meekest at home."
It was late in the afternoon that I took leave of Sir Edward and Lady McTiernan. The sight of the genial couple, standing against a background of green shrubbery and waving to me while the car was leaving is still vivid before my eyes.