Why We Must Celebrate Justice Kos’s Rise . . But Shed A Small Tear of Regret Too

John Bowie* It is always heartwarming in a cosy-by-the-fire sort of way when a colleague or friend achieves career success that we believe he or she deserves.  None more so than the further elevation of Justice Stephen Kos to the copper-encased world of the Supreme Court.

His appointment comes with the retirement of Justice Willie Young QC whose 70th birthday marked his departure. His anodyne comments on his retirement involved him saying be will be spending more time with his family, his golf and his garden.  When will a senior public servant be a little less platitudinous in their retirement pronouncements?  Could they not have a Nicaraguan bike trip,  banjo lessons or a series of watercolour nudes to attend to in their time ahead?

I would expect something more colourful from Justice Kos in another eight-to-10 years, given his interests in literature, classic motor vehicles, architecture, writing and doubtless much more.

The rise, which was well reported by Mike White in the Stuff media (one of the world’s most appalling names for a news site in case you wondered), adds further lustre to an already lustrous career.  And we rejoice in this standout Jurist’s success.

Or do we altogether? 

I was staying with a judicial friend when the announcement was made.  He is of lower rank than Justice Kos, as are more than about 99.5 per cent of the country’s judiciary, but it disappointed him that the busy Court of Appeal would lose a judge of such quality.

He was not detracting from the abilities of Justice Kos’s new colleagues on the Court, or his former colleague in the lower court, but rather the loss of a relatively young judge of such outstanding capability working with consistent effectiveness in a Court that delivered some 691 judgments in the 2020-21 year and dealt with over 1000 appeals and applications, compared to around 170 judgments from the Supreme Court for the 2021 year.   

The concern my friend had was that the allegedly under-whelmed-with-work Supreme Court would see Justice Kos grappling with arcane but less urgent matters like the application of  tikanga Maori to watercress ownership, or appeals from Vince Siemer.

The Stuff article indicated that Justice Kos had hesitated about accepting the role but upon reflection decided that he would have more time for legal writing among other things that weighed in favour of the elevation.

This was certainly not an elevation born of gender or racial diversity-seeking, unless the quota for sons of Hungarian refugees has become part of the Ministry of Justice’s appointment algorithm. 

His background as the son of a Hungarian immigrant (and a New Zealand mother) carry tragic and difficult tales redolent of the current Ukrainian war and the Judge makes the very good point that contemporaries like Justice Joe Williams and Chief Justice Helen Wikelmann did not grow up in privileged circumstances, putting paid to the too-frequent appointments of judges following a family tradition.

And anyone who can talk about having a background in New Zealand life of “genteel penury” is also a man whose judgements are similarly replete with trademark insight and a keen ability to identify and define the human condition with both its splendour and odiousness.

Crossing Paths

I have crossed paths, not swords, with the Judge over several years.  His love of good writing and literature, reflected in his judgments which avoid the shoulder-sagging tedium that characterise so many  (who else could have recently written about 

I worked briefly with His Honour in Wellington pre his Russell McVeagh days in another firm in another century and in another office. Apart from his  height which is about 7 feet, he stood tall with his obvious ability, enhanced with humour and humility.   

Indeed in that other life, I almost owned the very apartment I believe he now inhabits for some of his time.  

I always celebrate when the sons or daughters of recent immigrants, in particular, achieve success in this country.  They frequently have a difficult backstory that invests them with pluck, courage and fortitude.  And when we have those of Justice Kos’s quality ascend to high office, we also have a lot to be thankful for because we know they can only make this country even better.

Even if we may shed a small tear of regret at what we will miss from his work at the Court of Appeal’s judgement-generation efforts.

*John Bowie is LawFuel publisher.

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