New Zealand has only had 12 Chief Justices. Their tenures have been:
- Sir Robert Stout 26 years (1899 – 1926)
- Sir James Predergast 24 years (1875 – 1899)
- Dame Sian Elias 19 years (1999 – 2018)
- Sir George Avery 17 years (1858 – 1875)
- Sir Michael Myers 17 years (1929 – 1946)
- Sir William Martin 16 years (1841 – 1857)
- Sir Harold Barrowclough 13 years (1953 – 1966)
- Sir Richard Wild 12 years (1966 – 1978)
- Sir Ronald Davison 11 years (1978 – 1999)
- Sir Thomas Eichelbaum 10 years (1989 – 1999)
- Sir Humphrey O’Leary 7 years (1946 – 1953)
- Sir Charles Skerrett 3 years (1926 – 1929)
The Prime Minister has announced the process to appoint the 13th Chief Justice. The Chief Justice is appointed by the Prime Minister, unlike all the other senior judges who are appointed by the Attorney-General.
In theory the Prime Minister could appoint any judge to the role of Chief Justice, but it would be very unusual if it wasn’t a senior and experienced member of either the current Supreme Court or Court of Appeal.
In deciding whom to appoint, it is worth noting what have been some of the criticisms within the legal profession over the current Chief Justice – mainly that the Supreme Court has often had split decisions (meaning precedent less clear for future cases), and is slow to release judgments. Often the Chief Justice herself has been the dissenting party. Some in the legal fraternity also have a view that 20 years is too long for one person to be Chief Justice, and that the ideal term should be 10 – 13 years like the four before Elias. So ideal age would be 57 to 60.
The five names most commonly being talked about are:
- Justice Mark O’Regan. A judge for 19 years including four years on Court of Appeal and four on the Supreme Court. Was Court of Appeal President and widely regarded as excellent in that role. Aged 64.
- Justice Stephen Kós. A judge for seven years including three years on the Court of Appeal. Currently Court of Appeal President and again widely regarded as excellent in that role. Aged 59.
- Justice Susan Glazebrook. A judge for 18 years including six years on the Supreme Court. Some lawyers consider her a bit abrupt or rude in court. Once told a lawyer to stop speaking crap (I suspect many Judges have thought the same, just not said it). Aged 62
- Justice Helen Winkelmann. A judge for 14 years including three years on the Court of Appeal. Was Chief High Court Judge for five years. A very popular Judge with her colleagues. However has had a lot of decisions over-turned on appeal, especially in the Kim Dotcom cases. Age not clear but estimated to be around 56.
- Justice Joe Williams. A senior judge for 10 years including eight months on the Court of Appeal. Was Chief Judge of Maori Land Court for nine years and Chair of the Waitangi Tribunal. A very good public speaker. Has been criticized for some very slow judgements and has relative little experience in the appellate courts. Age not clear but estimated to be around 52.
These are just the five names most talked about. As I said, the PM could appoint any member of the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal. In theory she could even appoint someone who has never been an appellate judge.