Breakfast with Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella

by Talya Rose Nevins '18

A group of CJL students had the great opportunity to take part in an intimate breakfast conversation with Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Canadian Supreme Court on Thursday, March 2nd.  This special event was part of the Justice’s visit to Princeton coordinated by the Woodrow Wilson School.  She was accompanied by her husband Irving Abella, a professor at York University.

Abella was born in a displaced person's camp in Stuttgart, Germany on July 1, 1946, and her family came to Canada as refugees in 1950. She was called to the Ontario Bar in 1972 and practiced civil and criminal litigation until 1976, when she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court at the age of 29, the youngest woman appointed to the judiciary in Canada. She was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992. After serving on the Ontario Court of Appeal for 12 years, Abella became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court.

The group engaged in lively discussion (and some healthy debate) over the role of ideology and legal philosophy in both the Canadian and American judiciaries with the participants.  Abella shared her insights on the distinctions between the two systems, focusing on the role of civil liberties and group rights in each. She also opened the floor to any and all questions from the students.

Jacob Brown ’20, a Canadian student and CJL leader, reflected that “it was interesting to hear Justice Abella’s conversation about group rights versus individual rights in Canada— where group rights take precedent—and the United States—where individual rights take precedent—and how this affects judging mentalities. In the U.S., the belief  according to traditionalist judges is that no one group should get special rights, but in Canada it is not like that.”

Abella also described circumstances in which her knowledge of Jewish halacha and communal norms has been crucial in her role as a Supreme Court justice.   She outlined one case in which the Canadian court had to navigate the complex territory of Jewish divorce procedure, and explained how important it is to have judges who can represent the perspectives of non-secular communities.  Abella also described some of her “most interesting” recent cases, which included cases on assisted death, religious and secular divorce, and indigenous rights.

“This breakfast was a great way to get a behind-the-scenes view of what a public figure is like, and to meet someone who is consciously working to balance individual human rights with larger structures of civil liberties”, said Mikaela Gerwin ’19.

Earlier this year, Justice Abella was named Global Jurist of the Year by Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights. The award honors a sitting judge who has demonstrated courage in the face of adversity to defending human rights or principles of international criminal justice.

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