Albert Piddington

Albert Piddington bigraphy, stories - Australian judge, reformer and politician

Albert Piddington : biography

9 September 1862 – 5 June 1945

Albert Bathurst Piddington (9 September 1862 — 5 June 1945) was the shortest serving Justice of the High Court of Australia, never actually sitting at the bench. Appointed on 6 March 1913, he resigned on 5 April after opponents questioned his independence.

Early life

Piddington was born in 1862 in Bathurst, New South Wales. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School, and then studied at the University of Sydney. He graduated in 1883 with a Bachelor of Arts, winning the University Medal in Classics. He was appointed a vice-warden at the university’s St. Paul’s College in 1884, and from 1887 was a lecturer in English at the university. About this time he also started studying law. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1890.

Political career

In 1895, Piddington was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the electoral district of Tamworth, defeating the former Premier of New South Wales Sir George Dibbs. In 1896, he married Louisa O’Reilly. He was a delegate to the second constitutional convention in 1897-1898, where he campaigned against the proposed constitution, although supporting federation in general. He retired from politics in 1898. In 1910, Piddington was elected to the council of the University of Sydney. The following year, he was appointed as a Royal Commissioner by the Government of New South Wales to inquire into labour shortages, and was appointed a commissioner again in 1913 to inquire into industrial arbitration in New South Wales. During this time he continued to practice law and was employed at Sydney Boys High School.

Later life

In September 1913, Piddington was appointed as the chairman of the Interstate Commission by Joseph Cook, the new Commonwealth Liberal Party Prime Minister. It had been rumoured that Hughes would be appointed to that position, and it has been suggested that Cook appointed Piddington to spite Hughes, or to rebuke Hughes for turning on Piddington. Nevertheless, he remained Chairman until the legislation under which he and the other two commissioners had been appointed was invalidated by the High Court.New South Wales v Commonwealth (1915) (The Wheat Case) In 1919 he was made a Commissioner in both the Royal Commission on the Sugar Industry and the Royal Commission on the Basic Wage. In 1921 he was made a King’s Counsel, and from 1926, he served as President of the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission. He held that position until 1932, when following Governor of New South Wales Sir Philip Game’s dismissal of the Lang government, Piddington resigned in protest, despite being just a few weeks short of being entitled to a pension.

In 1934 he appeared in the High Court with Maurice Blackburn for Egon Kisch when he won his case to stay in Australia.

In 1940, Piddington returned to the High Court as a plaintiff.Piddington v Bennett and Wood Pty Ltd [1940] HCA 2; (1940) 63 CLR 533 (23 February 1940) Two years earlier, he was seriously injured after being struck by a motorcycle while crossing Phillip Street in Sydney, and sued for negligence. Unsuccessful in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, he appealed to the High Court. Piddington won the appeal but was unsuccessful in the retrial in the Supreme Court.Graham, Morris ‘Albert Bathurst Piddington’, in Blackshield, Coper and Williams, (2000) Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia page 533

Piddington died in Mosman.

High Court appointment

Piddington was one of four Justices appointed to the High Court in 1913. The bench had been expanded from five to seven justices that year, and foundation justice Richard O’Connor had died late in 1912. The then Attorney-General of Australia Billy Hughes, under Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, took the opportunity to try to stack the court. The Fisher Labor government put forward a constitutional referendum in 1911, proposing to give the federal government increased power over corporations and industrial relations, and to allow it to nationalise monopolies. It was defeated in all states but Western Australia. Fisher held another referendum in 1913 on the same issues, but that was also defeated. In this context, Fisher and Hughes were looking for justices who would have a broad interpretation of the Constitution of Australia, particularly of Section 51, which divides powers between the federal and state governments. If the constitution was interpreted broadly, then the need for referendums might be circumvented.

Hughes contacted Piddington’s brother-in-law, poet and politician Dowell O’Reilly, to ask about Piddington’s view on states’ rights. O’Reilly was not sure, and contacted Piddington (who was arguing a case before the Privy Council in London at the time) by telegram. The message reached him in Port Said, Egypt on 2 February. Piddington replied: "In sympathy with supremacy of Commonwealth powers." p80.

 Hughes then officially offered Piddington an appointment, which he accepted. Both the New South Wales and Victorian Bars, and the press, spoke out against Piddington's appointment. The Bulletin led a strong media campaign against Piddington. William Irvine refused to welcome Piddington as a judge on behalf of the Victorian Bar. Ultimately Piddington resigned from the High Court one month after his appointment, having never sat at the bench. Hughes, who had been widely criticised for trying to stack the court, labelled Piddington a coward after the incident, and called him a "panic-stricken boy". p82. 

Piddington was one of six justices of the High Court to have served in the Parliament of New South Wales, along with Edmund Barton, Richard O’Connor, Adrian Knox, Edward McTiernan and H. V. Evatt.