New Member Spotlight: Stephen Bonnlander

Court: Workplace Relations Commission, Dublin, Ireland

When did you become a judge and what was that process like?

I am a judicial officer sitting in a statutory tribunal of limited jurisdiction, under S. 38 of the Irish Constitution. In the U.S., I would be an administrative law judge. I was appointed by way of a special competition from the pool of Ireland’s tenured civil servants, rather than through a judicial appointments process. This way, I actually have only an academic law degree, but no practice qualification as either a solicitor or a barrister, the two regulated advocacy roles in Ireland. I did my law degree in night classes after work, after initial studies in the humanities. I was appointed in April 2007, so I am eleven years in the role. As regards my terms and conditions of employment, I actually remain a career civil servant – no short pension accrual for me! The salary is also just slightly more than half of that of a District Court judge and about 60% less than what an ALJ earns stateside, but let’s not dwell on that. I should also say that the role has since been opened to outside candidates as well, who hear cases on a per diem basis.

When/why did you join the IALGBTJ?

A particularly notorious serial complainant who always litigates pro se and laces his submissions with homophobic language. He claims to be discriminated against on the ground of religion. I am sure this sounds familiar to you! I felt it would fortify my mind and professional deportment to know I have a community who has my back when dealing with people like that. I have also experienced homophobic harassment from a member of the public, who is unhappy with one of my decisions. He doesn’t even know I am transgendered; somewhere  in the back of my mind lurks the question of what he’d write if he knew that. In such moments, it’s good to know that the IALGBTJ is around. I joined in 2016. I remember printing off my application and cover letter to Theodore just moments before I went into the hearing with Mr. Difficult.

What type of law did you practice before you became a judge?

As I said above, I did not practice in any advocacy role. But I have longstanding legislative and policy experience in the areas of human rights and anti-discrimination law, in particular disability law, which I think recommended me to the people who appointed me. For the first ten years in my role, I heard only discrimination complaints, for which this was a good preparation. I also have a PhD in German literature, which by way of examining historical travelogues, segued into a deep exploration of the formation of racist attitudes! Add to that my personal experiences of gender by way of my trans life, and you have a lot of the ground covered on which the most common discrimination scenarios  happen. I tend to say that I have a deep knowledge of the theory of the things of what’s before me, and that this is more important than not having a clue about property law and conveyancing, subjects I did indeed skip in my law degree.

What motivated you to become a judge?

I actually joined the Irish civil service in 2002 on a wing and a prayer to be appointed to the very role I fill today! I had avidly followed the story of the establishment of our predecessor organisation, the Equality Tribunal – where I then also served – and kept reading the decisions of the judicial officers which were published online from the start. Reading those, I thought I would absolutely love to do that. Luckily, there were job openings happening four years after I joined the civil service, and I was successful in the competition. I should add that this competition was strictly merit-based and not connected to either politics or votes in any way.

What was your biggest challenge in becoming a judge?

The job opening happening! I remember feeling nervous about filing an application and talking to a mentor of mine. He said: “Do it now! This will be the last opportunity for many years to get into the Equality Tribunal!” He was absolutely right. A lot of stars aligned the right way for that dream to be fulfilled.

What is the importance having openly LGBT judges serve on the bench?

I must admit, I am not very open, in particular not about my trans history. It’s out there on the Web, because the publisher of my PhD thesis outed me, but I very much keep it in the background in daily life. I am out as gay on the job, though. But here in Ireland, people still struggle with the idea that a trans person can also be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. And to be honest, I am nervous about drawing even more harassment than what I am already experiencing if I were more out. I am enormously grateful for every colleague who feels they can be more out than I am, though. It does send a very important message to the general public that GLBT people are not social outsiders any longer.

What has been the most unexpected or exciting experience you have had as a judge? What has been the biggest challenge in serving as a judge?

My most exciting experience was making a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union, only the 43rd judicial officer or so in the history of Ireland’s EU membership to do so, and to date, the only one at my pay grade! This was in the matter of Z. v. A Government Department and the Board of Management of a Community School (CJEU case reference C363/12). This was about a young teacher who had a congenital conditions which meant she was born without a womb, but with working ovaries. She and her husband had a daughter with the assistance of a surrogate mother in California, but which was genetically theirs. Ms. Z. ended up with no entitlement to maternity leave under Irish law because she had not gone through a normal confinement. On the other hand, she had no right to adoptive leave either, since under California law, and indeed in terms of genetics, her daughter was her daughter and not adopted. It was an utterly fascinating and humanly engaging case to be involved with. In terms of how families are formed in our communities, it was also deeply satisfying to be able to be involved in the developing law on alternative human reproduction, on an EU-wide level!

Biggest challenge: Overwork. Sorry I don’t have anything more exciting to offer. And management who have never done judicial work themselves and cannot be made to understand that this is not like widget production. I know presiding judges are often in a bind in terms of the resources they have to manage, but how would I prefer to have a presiding judge over my actual superiors!

If you could go back in time to offer advice to your younger-self about your career and your development as a judge, what would that advice be?

Do your bar exams while you are still young and energetic enough to survive the process, to ensure you are also eligible for appointments on the regular bench.

What advice or wisdom can you offer newer judges?

The old adage “justice must be seen to be done” is only 20% about due process, even though due process remains essential, of course. That was what I believed when I started, when I thought doing things “by the book” was enough. The other 80% , which I discovered in the subsequent years, is the need for the emotional intelligence to communicate these principles to an unbelievably wide range of people who must be met where they are and made to buy into it! It’s very much like the hidden part of an iceberg. It is also what is the truly draining part of hearings at least for me. Last, if you get too good at this, you may become your presiding judge’s go-to person for difficult litigants, so proceed with caution. On the other hand, these difficult people can often be the most satisfying to serve. I have a collection of amazing thank-you letters from pro se litigants who drove me up the wall whilst their litigations were ongoing!

What would you like the members of the IALGBT to know about you personally?

I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and whilst I certainly do not bring my faith into my hearings, I do have to say that the way hearing discrimination cases aligns with the Quaker testimony of equality makes them particularly important and personally satisfying for me. I am also a certified mediator and serve in that capacity in my workplace. Again, this aligns beautifully with the Quaker testimony of peace and conflict resolution! I feel very fortunate and privileged to be able to live out some very deeply held values in my work.

Even outside work I am quite engaged with my faith community, for example as a purveyor of fine baked goods for various bake sales, and also in interfaith dialogue – I serve as Quaker representative on the Irish Council of Christians and Jews.

I live with migraine and arthritis, but a healthy lifestyle, including lots of cycling and yoga, keep the symptoms for both at bay. I have a bit of a magpie mind and feel happiest when I do some studying and reading outside of the law. At the moment, I am slowly – very slowly! – making my way through a mathematics diploma with the Open University (UK), and am also studying French with the Alliance Francaise here in Dublin.

Contact Stephen Bonnlander