Her Honour Judge Deborah Sweeney of the District Court to the Supreme Court of NSW

Reg Graycar
Kevin Tang

On 8 February 2023, her Honour Judge Deborah Sweeney of the District Court of New South Wales was sworn-in as a Justice of the Supreme Court in a ceremonial sitting in the Banco Court by the Honourable Chief Justice Dr A.S. Bell.

A week before her swearing-in as a Justice of the Supreme Court, her colleague, the Honourable Justice Weinstein, who like her Honour, was elevated from the District Court, related at his own swearing-in (also noted in this issue) that he had been advised by Justice Bellew when he was appointed to the District Court, to enjoy what was said about him at his swearing-in as the only other time people would be so publicly complimentary would be at his funeral. Justice Bellew was proved wrong in the case of his Honour. In her Honour’s case, he would have been even more wrong: the recent ceremony was not the second, but the third occasion on which her Honour has been publicly acclaimed and complimented on being sworn-in as a judicial officer in NSW.

Justice Sweeney is the first woman in NSW to have served on all courts in NSW: the Local Court, the District Court and now the Supreme Court. Her Honour was ceremonially welcomed to the Court by the NSW Attorney General, the Honourable Mark Speakman SC MP, on behalf of the State of NSW and the Bar. The Attorney recounted some highlights of her Honour’s distinguished legal career, following her graduation from UNSW Law School where she excelled. Her Honour did not come from a legal background family and credits one of her school teachers for the suggestion that she study law.

Her Honour commenced work as a solicitor at the Commonwealth DPP after graduation, a move encouraged by some of her fellow volunteers at Redfern Legal Centre (in the footsteps of the Hon Virginia Bell AC SC and the Honourable John Basten, Acting Judge of Appeal). At the Commonwealth DPP, she worked closely with the inaugural Commonwealth DPP, Ian Temby AO KC and later joined him as principal solicitor with the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Her Honour’s next role was as Director, Investigations Division of the NSW Crime Commission. Immediately prior to her appointment as a Local Court magistrate, she held a senior position at the NSW Office of Public Prosecutions where she managed what was known as the ‘Nursery’, and was highly regarded for her role in the training and mentoring of ‘baby lawyers’.

Justice Sweeney spent ten years on the Local Court where she was nicknamed ‘Portia’ in recognition of her outstanding judicial qualities. At her swearing-in at the District Court on 21 April 2006, she was welcomed by Michael Slattery QC, as his Honour then was, as representative of the Bar. Some twelve years later, she now joins his Honour on the Bench of the Supreme Court.

Reflecting on her time on the Bench of the NSW District Court, she made special reference to her opportunities to sit with Indigenous elders as a participant in the Walama Program to introduce a specialist approach to sentencing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders appearing before the court. This would become the Walama List which continues to this day.

Her Honour’s outstanding contributions to the justice system are complemented by her Honour’s extra-curial activities: those at her swearing-in heard of her lifelong penchant for reading, philosophy, and travel. She and her late partner, Judge Robert Sorby, had a house in provincial France where they spent time together. New York is also a favourite destination. When not sitting on the bench, her Honour might be spotted at the theatre, ballet, or at a concert. Her Honour is also an accomplished and exhibited photographer.

Her Honour is also a scholarly author. Among other publications, she is coauthor with Neil Williams SC, of a 1990 monograph, Commonwealth Criminal Law. Her Honour brings some 26 years of judicial experience to the Supreme Court. The President of the Law Society noted that her Honour exudes ‘impeccable style’ and that she is ‘learned, elegant, refined and highly respected’. For that, the profession is grateful that her Honour will be a learned and fair judge of the Supreme Court. Her Honour will sit in the Common Law Division. BN

Reg Graycar

Kevin Tang