By Tina Comeau
In his remarks the Chief Justice of Nova Scotia noted that being inside a courtroom is rarely a fun event, although Justice Michael MacDonald says there are, in his opinion, two exceptions to that rule – adoptions and the swearing in of new judges.
It was the latter of these two that formed the basis of a ceremony at the Yarmouth Justice Centre on Jan. 31 where former Crown prosecutor Michelle Christenson was officially sworn in a judge of the family and provincial courts of Nova Scotia.
“You will be a great judge,” Justice MacDonald told Christenson. “In my view what makes a good judge a great judge is someone who has compassion, understanding, caring and has empathy for the people you judge.”
This no more true, or needed, he said, than in family law where good people go through some of the worst times of their life.
There were many accolades for Christenson and her appointment to the bench expressed during the ceremony. Provincial Justice Minister Lena Diab said Christenson has demonstrated during her legal career and with the volunteer work she does with youth, women’s causes and the church that she cares about people.
“I think that’s a very important element for anyone in the legal system,” Diab said. “Not only a dedication to justice, but a keen sense of compassion and commitment to your community.”
Judge Pamela Williams, the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court and Family Court of Nova Scotia, said prior to the judicial selection committee interviews to select a new judge she wasn’t aware of Christenson. In that interview, she said, Christenson “wowed the crowd.” She described Christenson as young, energetic, enthusiastic and a great humanitarian.
“You are the perfect fit for this role,” she said, saying above all Christenson’s experiences as a wife and a mother, including being the mother of child with special needs, will help her to understand and empathize with the people that come before her in family court, seeking words of wisdom to help them solve complicated matters.
Although she is both a provincial and family court judge, it is in family court where Christenson is expected to preside most on the bench, replacing retiring Judge John Comeau.
Judicial swearing-ins are also accompanied by their lighter moments and Friday’s ceremony was no exception. Some of these lighter moments were delivered by lawyer Phil Star who has been on the opposite side of the courtroom from Christenson when she was a Crown attorney.
He explained why it was good that Christenson never pursued a career in health care – talking about the time she stood on a man’s oxygen tank line while going over the wording of a will with him. He also enlightened people about Christenson’s work ethic, pointing out it wasn’t unusual for her to come into her office some mornings at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for a case, even if she came to work her in pajamas. She’d always make it home and back in time to dress in more appropriate attire before appearing before the judge in court, he said. On a more serious note, Star said Christenson’s record, her life experience and her impartiality will make her a true credit to the bench.
While there were many moving words during the ceremony, none were more moving than the ones delivered by Christenson herself who, with her family looking on – and her judicial family as well – spoke of being inspired by others in the legal community, people she says have been her mentors and whom she continues to look up to.
To Judge James Burrill, for instance, she said, “You have no idea how influential, sir, you have been in my life,” recalling how, when he was the Chief Crown Attorney, he hired her as a Crown attorney despite the fact she had only practiced in family law. She said she remembered watching how he interacted with people and thought to herself she wanted to be just like him.
“And as a judge he continued to treat people in the same manner as he did when he was a Crown,” she said. “You continue to be my role model and if I can be half the judge that you are, then we are in good stead.”
She expressed thanks and admiration for the staff she’s worked with through her years in the Crown’s office, and other friends who have influenced her life or supported her along the way.
Her most moving words were for her family – her parents, her sisters, her husband and her children. She said no other title can compare to the one she received when she became a mother, which forever changed the essence of who she is.
“What matters most is not whether I have become accomplished in the eyes of the world, but whether I have loved much. Have I opened my heart to others?” she said, noting her children have taught her most to do this.
“As I look to the future I can only say that I promise with all of my heart to fulfill the oath that I have taken here today to the best of my ability,” Christenson said. “In closing I pray, because I do, that I may always remember that the most important person in the courtroom is the one whose matter must be decided. There is no room for ego, arrogance or pride. We have a job to do, our roles are all different, but none is more important than the other. To be a judge is to be at the service of the people.”