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Justice Frank Iacobucci: The Man Behind the Gavel
By Fiona Story
The ominous grey building down on Wellington Street known as the Supreme Court of Canada evokes images of judges in white wigs, wearing fierce scowls, and loudly banging their gavels.

I quickly bound up the stairs, looking to escape the dry chill in the air because my only dress coat also happens to be paper-thin. An RCMP officer greets me at the door and kindly provides me with an escort to Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci’s office. My police companion’s name is Mike. He addresses my questions with a polite, “Yes, Miss” or “No, Miss” as we ride the elevator up to the second floor. As he walks down the hall to Justice Iacobucci’s office, he asks how I came to pick such a good interview subject.

“Actually, Mike, I was assigned the story by the paper I write for,” I say.

“Well Miss, Justice Iacobucci is a very nice man. He’s really down-to-earth,” my escort kindly informs me.

Mike drops me off in front of Justice Iacobucci’s office. His assistant, Micheline, greets me at the door and takes my coat.

“So young to be a journalist,” she remarks with a friendly laugh. “Justice Iacobucci is on the phone, he’ll be with you in a minute.”

One minute later the Supreme Court Justice emerges from his office with an enthusiastic smile and directs me into his office. The first thing he asks me as we take a seat near the fireplace in his office is how my life is going and what I’ve been up to. This is my first encounter with Justice Iacobucci and yet his enquiry is quite sincere. So I tell him.

Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci

In return he tells me a bit about himself, starting with two plaques on the wall above us. One plaque declares him an honourary citizen of an Italian town called Mongone and the other an honourary citizen of a town called Abruzzo. These are the hometowns of his mother and father and Justice Iacobucci upholds them as the greatest honours he has received throughout his extensive career.

Justice Iacobucci is quite proud of his Italian heritage. He is past-president of the National Congress of Italian-Canadians in Toronto, is frequently involved with the Italian community here in Ottawa, and even has a tiny Italian flag sitting on his office desk.

“My Italian is a little rusty though, even though I’m sure it was the first language I learned,” he says, remembering his childhood in Vancouver.

Growing up during the war, Justice Iacobucci’s parents encouraged him to learn and practise English.

“It wasn’t very fashionable to speak Italian in those times and my parents knew that in order to make a life here in Canada, you needed English.”

However, being Italian was always very important to his parents. When his older brother Danny jokingly suggested they change their last name to Sullivan because it was easier to spell and didn’t stand out as much, Gabriel Iacobucci promptly reprimanded him for making such a suggestion.

In his youth, Justice Iacobucci didn’t think much about law. He started off wanting to be a doctor.

“That quickly fell short because I can’t stand blood,” he laughs as he nestles into an armchair.

It was his elementary school principal who set the wheels turning in Justice Iacobucci’s head when he compared the talkative grade six student to a lawyer. Since that point, Justice Iacobucci has built a distinguished career in law. He studied at the University of British Columbia, St. John’s College at Cambridge University and the University of Toronto. He would eventually teach at the University of Toronto, be involved with numerous associations and committees, as well as receive a number of awards, before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991.

It was at a law firm in New York City where he met his wife Nancy. The pair was married in 1964. Justice Iacobucci credits a lot of his success to the continuous support of his wife, a Harvard law school graduate who, in his opinion is smarter than he is. Family is the most important thing in Justice Iacobucci’s life. He fondly speaks of his wife and his eyes light up as he informs me he’s just become a grandfather.

“I’ve been very lucky in all aspects of my life,” he says.

There are a few things Justice Iacobucci admits he would like to have done in his lifetime that he never had the chance to accomplish.

“I would have liked to have been the manager of a major league baseball team. Baseball’s always been one of my first loves,” he smiles, no doubt envisioning himself in a team jacket drumming up strategies for his all-star players.

When he eventually decides to lay aside his career, Justice Iacobucci plans to undertake reading and cooking. He has an unbridled passion for food shopping and cooking. Spending time with his grandchildren is also high on his list of priorities.

I spend about 20 minutes after my interview chatting with Justice Iacobucci about life and my future. He took as keen an interest in what I planned to do with my life as I had in what he’d done with his. I tell him about the ambitions I have, no matter how far-flung they might be, and he shares with me his own personal credo borrowed from Robert Browning.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” recites Justice Iacobucci. “Beautiful isn’t it?”

After almost an hour, I gather my notes, having taken up enough of Justice Iacobucci’s time.

“Oh, I have to give you a gift,” he says, hurrying over to his desk. He yanks open a couple of drawers before he pulls out a Supreme Court pin, which he promptly hands to me.

“It’s beautiful,” I say, speaking more of the gesture.

“Well no, not really,” Justice Iacobucci says as he looks at the pin. “It’s actually kind of ugly but still, a souvenir.”

His assistant retrieves my coat for me and Justice Iacobucci chats with me for a few minutes longer. As I head out the door to join Mike, who is patiently waiting in the hallway, Justice Iacobucci wishes me all the best in future endeavours with a happy wave. Mike escorts me back down in the elevator to the entrance.

“Yes, he’s an extremely nice man Miss,” he says to me as we approach the main desk. “Very smart, very grounded.”

Waving goodbye to my friendly escort, I push through the heavy revolving doors and quickly hop down the steps of the courthouse, thinking how cozy it is inside.

This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Il Postino.


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