Death has been busy of late in the ranks of those whose memory Australians will always hold in peculiar honour. When Australia was still a collection of separate and often jealous interests, they saw that our national destinies could only be fulfilled by Federation. They worked for its accomplishment, were, so to speak, its spiritual nurses, and each in his degree and his function guided its development. Sir Edmund Barton has gone, Mr. Deakin has gone, and now Sir Samuel Griffith has gone. His passing has removed from the Australian scene one of its most notable figures, and the last surviving member of the original Bench of the High Court for which he and his colleagues established such a fine tradition.
When Sir Samuel Griffith retired from the Chief Justiceship, an English appreciation declared that in the history of Australia his name would stand beside that of Wentworth as one of those to whom Australia, has owed most in her journey along the path of nationhood. The comparison may not be wholly apt, but it suggests the impression that Sir Samuel Griffith made upon detached minds. He was an intellectual giant; a man who had in his time played many parts, and played them all successfully. His career and work were alike a refutation of the suggestion that small communities cannot produce great men. The triton among the minnows may often find that in wider spheres he is at a disadvantage, but Sir Samuel Griffith had no such experience. Queensland was not big enough for him, and Australia was fortunate in having such a one for her first Chief Justice.
He had been both Premier and Chief Justice of Queensland, and in the latter capacity he had shown that the northern State commanded one of the most acute judicial minds in Australia. When he retired from public life he left all his political prepossessions behind him and no-one could recognise in the austere and aloof Judge who threshed out constitutional questions on abstract principles the leader of many a heated conflict in the Legislature.
His title to fame as an authority on law needs no advertisement. Under his auspices the High Court of Australia has become one of the Courts whose decisions are recognised as being of immense persuasive value even in jurisdictions where they are not binding. That is a boast which few Courts so newly-born can make. Sir Samuel Griffith and his colleagues made the Court something more than a mere formal court of appeal. Woe to the counsel who came armed only with the immediate implications of his brief. He learned that he must be prepared to argue his case on a much more profound basis, to establish hypotheses which had previously been assumed, to move in an atmosphere more rarified and at the same time more universal than that to which he had, perhaps, hitherto been accustomed.
Sir Samuel Griffith was exacting, it is sometimes said, but there is no doubt that his influence has raised the standard of Australian law. He looked all around a subject; if our own law did not supply an authority which satisfied his legal sense of what was required he would go far afield for the appropriate principle, and by so doing he enlarged the scope of Australian jurisprudence. On constitutional questions his verdict carried unique weight.
He had helped to draft our Constitution: who, then, was better fitted to interpret its meaning and intention. We should not forget that on constitutional points Sir Samuel Griffith's opinion had usually the support of Sir Edmund Barton, who also knew what the framers of the Constitution had proposed to do, who could realise where they had fallen short of their design, who could discriminate between letter and spirit and between spirit and letter. In these High Court judgments, it is said, Sir Samuel Griffith's qualities arc best displaced. His subtle reasoning, his grasp of elusive distinctions, the lucidity with which he explained his "ratio decidendi" stamp him as one of the greatest jurists of our time. His monument is the Commonwealth Law Reports.
When so many distinguished men have left us at the summons of the grim recruiting sergeant Death comparisons between past and future become inevitable. The giants of old days seem to have had unlimited energy and unlimited interests. Before Sir Edmund Barton ever became our first Prime Minister he had for years shaped the fortunes of New South Wales; Sir Samuel Griffith had borne his full share of the heat and burden of the political day. Others whose names everyone remembers had been prominent in public life before they accepted a seat on the Bench. Perhaps as the years wear on we shall see more of a divorce between public life and the judiciary simply for the reason that this is an age of specialism, and where a Barton or a Griffith could satisfy both claims, to-day a man can do so less easily.
The career either of a successful lawyer or of a leader in Parliament has become a strenuous one, and either finds that the one must be sacrificed for the other, it may be that Sir Samuel Griffith is remembered not only for his own performances, but for the fact that he was the last of the great lawyer-politicians who since Wentworth's time have done so much to shape our national future.
'Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker (1845–1920)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/griffith-sir-samuel-walker-445/text446, accessed 20 June 2013.