Motley’s Editor in Chief Niamh Browne speaks to Justice Marie Baker on her time in UCC, her career as a barrister and her role as the first woman from Munster to sit on the Irish Supreme Court.
Justice Baker is an exceptional individual, as anyone who sits on Ireland’s highest court is assumed to be. Her roots are quite ordinary though. Her father was a postmaster, and her mother worked in the home. She didn’t go to one of ‘the private schools lawyers were expected to go to’. Neither of her parents had any education above a junior certificate. Baker says: ‘I was the eldest of five. My parents had always assumed we would go to college. It was assumed I would become a teacher. I probably sounded like a teacher but I didn’t want to do that’. Baker encountered opposition to her education from a young age, wanting to do higher level maths for her Leaving Certificate but her single-sex girl’s school didn’t offer it. ‘I had to go to the boy’s school for classes but it didn’t last.’ Baker continues “the headmaster of the boy’s school thought it was “too distracting”’. It was not a common arrangement. ‘I was the first and only person to do it. I never quite understood it, in those days you wouldn’t ask your teacher what went wrong there. I wasn’t given a chance to ask “What that was about?”.’
Baker completed her Leaving Cert in 1971 and began studying philosophy at UCC. At this time Ireland was still deeply patriarchal, with the spectre of the church still influencing government policy. Archbishop McQuaid was alive and well and the marriage bar was still in place. I asked if this affected Justice Baker: ‘Marriage wasn’t on my mind, the marriage bar wasn’t on my mind. I think I always assumed that I would work and that I would work in a role that wasn’t the civil service’. It was through reading the texts of Camus and Sartre given to her by her French teacher Sister Anne, that Baker encountered philosophy: ‘Camus and Sartre showed me that there were other ways of thinking that were different to the straightforward catholic discourse. It wasn’t that I was rebellious, it was that by reading those texts my mind was opened to another way of thinking. I was only 17’. She continues: ‘I wanted to go to college to explore another way of looking at the world. It was as vague as that’. It seems that philosophy was the right fit for Baker and she believes ‘it was a good way of training my mind’.
Once she completed her degree, Baker, like so many humanities graduates, was at a loose end of what to do next: ‘I saw an ad in the back of the Irish Times looking for an English Teacher in the North of Spain so I went. With no Spanish. I went to Bilbao airport and I thought “oh what have I done”’. On her decision, she states, ‘I was 20 when I graduated with a degree in philosophy. It was the dark ages. It was 1974 in Ireland. There was no work for women. There was no work for anybody who lived in a small town in East Cork’.
1974 was an extraordinary year to be living in Spain as it was the eve of General Franco’s death, which brought a 39-year-long fascist dictatorship to an end. ‘I was there the year when he died. It was impossible to leave Spain when that political discourse was going on. I lived in the Basque Country and it was the first time I had ever seen the application of philosophical thinking to an actual worldview. The El País newspaper and some of the Basque language papers (which I couldn’t read), were full of an analysis which we don’t engage with very much, it’s an analysis of what democracy means. Can you have a democracy with a king? How can you have a democracy when the elements of various constituencies are very different such as the Basques, Catalans, Andalusíans’.
Spain was not to be Baker’s home for life: ‘It was only in my third year that I thought “I can’t really stay here because I am kind of permanently on holiday”. I needed to think of some kind of career path or whatever. So I wrote back to the UCC philosophy department to find out what masters programmes they were offering, applied and got a place on it and came back’.This is where her legal brain kicked in: ‘I did a master’s in philosophy with my thesis on Aristotle’s philosophy of law. Which explored how justice could still be achieved when there were still very strict and strictly defined rules in positive law. That set me off on the route of law’.
‘I knew by the time I finished my masters that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional philosopher and also that I wouldn’t like it. I quite liked the things that I heard from my friends who were studying law. They were all working the law. I liked how their minds applied general rules to individual facts. I thought then that what I might do is become an academic lawyer. Teach Jurisprudence in a law faculty’. With this new-found direction in mind, Baker decided to go back and do another BA: ‘The only reason I did a law degree is because I was supporting myself financially and I couldn’t afford to go to the grind schools. They were very expensive. Whereas if I did a law degree for 10 or 12 hours a week I could work in a pub or whatever to support myself. Bit by bit by bit I thought to myself: “I like this way of working with the world. I’m a lawyer.” I mean what do you say?’.
Baker at this point knew that she wanted to be a barrister but it was not what she was encouraged to do. Quite the contrary. Indeed one of her lecturers told a future Supreme Court Judge: ‘that’s very foolish you’ll never make a go at it’.
‘I got lucky. There were only 20 women at the bar but some of them were really iconic barristers: Mary Laffoy (President of the Law Reform Commision), Mary Irvine (former President of the High Court) and Mela Caroll (first woman to serve as a judge on the High Court in Ireland). These were women who were living their lives as barristers. I also got lucky because young women were becoming solicitors, and wanted to brief women barristers. Even in my first year at the bar I got work I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise’. Ar an scáth chéile a mhaireann na mná it would appear. Baker continues: ‘The women were very supportive of each other. Not because we knew each other or went to the same school’.
Baker speaks warmly of her career as a barrister, of the colleagues she worked with, men and women alike and by all accounts seems to have massively enjoyed being a barrister. So what made her decide to become a judge? ‘I was thirty years at the bar when I took the bench. Twenty at the junior bar, Ten as a senior counsel. I took Silk (becoming a senior counsel) because I thought the quality of my work was suffering. I was too busy, I was always in a rush and I didn’t do anything well enough. I thought if I took Silk I’d have less work, I’d be required to do it at a higher level and with more excellence in what I did’. The decision to become a judge was: ‘more a shot in the dark than anything else’.
The process was as follows: ‘I applied. I thought I’d like it. I thought something about the way I look at the world would be beneficial. I am always interested in looking for a clear position. I also thought that it was important to offer public service, to “give back” by taking judicial office. I got it and I absolutely love being a judge’. Her first appointment was as a High Court Judge, followed by the Court of Appeal followed by the Supreme Court. ‘It’s the hardest job by a long shot because all questions that come to us don’t have straightforward answers. In the High Court, you look for another case that gives you some of the answer. But when you’re in the Supreme court, you’re not stuck with what was decided by an earlier court because you’re free to explore why’.
But of course, as with everything, there is much more complexity to this role: ‘You’re watchful that you’re not leaving a hostage to fortune. You’re not leaving behind a proposition that will bounce along and become a new point of law’.
I can’t resist but bring Baker back to her first BA. Does Justice Baker think she would be the same lawyer she is without her background in philosophy? ‘I wouldn’t be the same lawyer I am without a philosophy degree. I am curious because of it and I still read philosophy. Oddly enough, I still pick up my Aristotle. He’s the author I come back to. I think his concept of how we think, how our understanding evolves from perceptions and observations -I think that is the key to understanding how human thinking is’.
‘My new job as Chair of the Electoral Commission will bring me back to Aristotle. Some of the work we will do will have to bring us around to principles involving fake news and the education of people understanding truth and sources of information’. It seems to wrap up the interview, bringing Baker’s career together in a nice little bow, but it was never planned that way she says: ‘I am not telling you for one minute that I had a plan because I didn’t. If at any one stage if I had retired I would have said that I had a good and satisfying career. I am incredibly lucky’.