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Northwestern law to honor Canadian judge

Rosalie Silberman Abella to receive Global Jurist of the Year award

CHICAGO - Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, who serves on the Supreme Court of Canada, will receive a top honor for courage in the face of adversity from the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights (CIHR) and deliver an address on international law. 

Abella will be honored as the fourth annual Global Jurist of the Year and give a talk titled “Judges, Democracy and Human Rights” at noon, Wednesday, Jan. 25, in Room 150 of the Rubloff Building at the Law School, 375 E. Chicago Ave., on the Chicago campus.

The address is free and open to the public. 

The Global Jurist of the Year Award honors a sitting judge, whether in an international or national court, who has demonstrated a life of professional commitment — at times in the face of adversity — to upholding and defending fundamental human rights or principles of international criminal justice. Jurists from all nations and tribunals are eligible for consideration.

Ambassador David Scheffer, director of the Law School’s Center for International Human Rights, said: “Justice Abella has stood throughout her judicial career for the enforcement of human rights principles for all Canadians, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or station in life. We are very proud to honor her as Global Jurist of the Year.”

Abella is a pioneer in many ways. She is the first Jewish woman and the youngest person ever appointed as a judge in Canada. She also is the first Jewish woman appointed to the country’s Supreme Court. Born in a displaced persons’ camp in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1946, Justice Abella is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. 

Abella’s father — who in 1930 was one of four Jewish students in his law school class in Poland — served as the head of legal services for residents of displaced persons’ camps before the family emigrated to Canada as refugees in 1950. His experiences inspired Abella’s interest in the legal profession.

Abella attended the University of Toronto, where she earned a B.A. in 1967 and a law degree in 1970. She practiced civil and criminal law until 1976, when she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court. She then served on the Ontario Human Rights Commission for five years, and as chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the Ontario Study into Access to Legal Services by the Disabled and the Ontario Law Reform Commission. 

In 1983, she was appointed sole commissioner of the federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which sought to address workplace discrimination against women, aboriginal peoples, minorities and those with disabilities. 

Her seminal work on this commission, now known as the Abella Commission, led to the creation of the concept of employment equity. She was appointed in 1992 to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, where her rulings included the 1998 landmark decision that resulted in the extension of survivor benefits to same-sex partners. In 2004, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Past recipients of the Global Jurist of the Year Award include the Honorable Gloria Patricia Porras Escobar, president of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court; Justice Shireen Avis Fisher, president of the Special Court for Sierra Leone; and Acting Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

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