I first learned of the novel “January: A Woman Judge’s Season of Disillusion” after retired Justice Susan Lang mentioned it at the OBA Women Lawyers Forum’s “Pathways to Power: Women on the Bench” event that was held in the spring. Justice Lang noted that the author, the Honourable Marie Corbett Q.C., chose to resign from being a judge rather than retire, which is rare. This piqued my interest. What made her lose interest or stop enjoying her work as a judge?
The story takes place in January of 1995 when Justice Corbett’s disillusionment with being a judge becomes evident at the same time one of her close friends, Anne Armstrong Gibson, is dying of cancer at the age of 46. The book follows Marie’s daily travels between the courtroom and the hospital room of her dying friend. Through up close and sometimes very personal accounts, she paints a picture of the shortcomings of both the medical and legal systems in the 1990s.
Most interesting were the glimpses into this judge’s daily life: her thoughts when she witnessed a poor cross-examination; her routine before and after court; her criticism of sexual assault trials; the feeling of powerlessness she sometimes felt; and her thoughts on feminism and the role of women in law (when she was appointed, women were only 3% of the judiciary and there were only nine women in her law-school class, the largest in its history).
In her storytelling the author presents herself as a confident woman who does not shy away from expounding her accomplishments, and in fact, has little patience for those women who do:
“I was all too familiar with women of achievement who were loath to acknowledge their accomplishments. Likewise, I had little patience with the women who say ‘I’m only a housewife’ ‘I’m just a secretary,’ I had even less when successful women found it so hard to take a bow and say ‘Yes, I did it.’ . . . Why is it so ingrained in women to diminish what we do and who we are? . . . A man takes a piss somewhere, and they put up a plaque.”[emphasis in original]
Weaved throughout the narrative are tales of lunches at private golf and ski clubs, private vacation resorts in the Bahamas, expensive boarding schools, dinner and dancing with Princess Di, and encounters with Margaret Thatcher and Queen Noor, revealing a privileged life that only a few can relate to. But balanced with this are experiences that all too many are familiar with: the scenes of sickness and cancer and Marie’s encounters with the dying Anne.
The book presents a unique insight into the judiciary, revealing that not all are suited for such a job, no matter how qualified they may be. Anyone who may be interested in seeking out a position on the bench, or wants to read about the judiciary, women in the law, or simply a tale of friendship (and a reminder to ‘seize the day’) would find this a quick and interesting read.
If you would like to learn more about this novel or the Honorable Marie Corbett, I've noticed that she will be giving an "Author’s Talk" at an upcoming Toronto Lawyer’s Association event on October 6, 2016. You can register for this event here.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.