The poet Josiah Gilbert Holland wrote that
“Heaven is not gained at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit round by round.
We rise by the things that are ‘neath our feet;
By what we have mastered of good and gain;
By the pride deposed and the passion slain,
And the vanquished ills that we hourly meet.”
These thoughts reflect the career of our late Chief Justice , the Honourable Mr.Justice Stephen Isaacs. His ascent to the pinnacle of the judiciary was not made in a single bound but he studiously built a ladder and climbed round by round. He built a steady foundation on which he stood. In that process he laid aside selfish pride and with controlled passion faced the challenges which stood in the way of his progress.
His career stands as an example of patience, diligence and dedication to a goal. He understood the importance of keeping focused on the route chosen even when the road gets bumpy and when obstacles get in the way. And in biblical terms he understood that the race is not for the swiftest but for he who endures to the end. Many athletes leaves the blocks with blazing speed only to pull up dejected and disappointed short of the finish line.
At the risk of dating myself age wise I can indicate that I began my working career in 1979 at the Registry of the Supreme Court. I was employed there full time until 1982 when I enrolled in the University of the West Indies and continued thereafter on a part time basis until 1987 working throughout the summer months each year. In addition to providing me with invaluable experience it also afforded me the opportunity to meet and interact with most of the attorneys who practiced before the Courts in Nassau.
I don’t recall when I first met Stephen but I know that I was aware of him from the early days of his beginning to practice. However, it was when he commenced employment at the Supreme Court as Assistant Registrar that I got to know him better. By that time I too had been called to the bar and had occasion to appear before him in chambers.
In appearing before him I got to appreciate his patience and the way he sought to ensure that he carried out his duties in a proper manner. I can vividly recall appearing before him in a matter in which I call the case of “the empty envelope”. At the time I was employed at the Office of the Attorney General and had to appear before him on a summons for judgment filed by a particular attorney who will remain nameless.
We had been served with a writ and statement of claim and in the normal course of things filed a defence to that claim. So you can imagine our surprise when we received a summons and affidavit seeking judgment in default of a defence. We filed our affidavit in response from our process server who confirmed having served the document and obtaining the signature of the receptionist/Secretary who received it.
We were then served with a further affidavit alleging that although the secretary recalled receiving an envelope from our office she signed for it but did not open the same but rather placed it on her boss’s desk. According to the affidavit when the attorney opened the envelope he found it to be empty. According to him he had no idea what was supposed to be in it or which attorney had sent it from our office.
In order to resolve this issue Stephen required us to the have the affiants cross-examined to determine who he would believe. To me that process was a frustrating charade as I was satisfied that the attorney was being less than honest with the assistance of his staff. However, Stephen presided over the exercise with patience asking where appropriate the relevant questions to satisfy himself as to how he should rule. He eventually ruled in our favour.
Now when I shared this story with other colleagues at the bar to my amazement I learned that I was not the only victim of the empty envelope. It was apparently an event which had occurred on several occasions involving the same attorney. It was then that I realized the level of patience which Stephen possessed and his understanding that no matter what case a litigant put before him he was required to give them their day in court. Needless to say thereafter we never served documents in envelopes again but served them openly with a cover sheet attached identifying the particular document which was being served.
After Stephen joined the Bench and became Mr. Justice Isaacs I had the privilege of appearing before him in both Nassau and in Freeport. He was a judge who listened to the submissions of Counsel and treated them with courtesy. For me it was a pleasure to appear before him as I knew that whether I agreed with his decision or not it would be his honest decision based on his understanding of the facts and the law.
When I joined the bench in 2011 Justice Isaacs was very welcoming and accommodating. I benefitted from his advice and encouragement as I settled into my new role. Stephen was a great colleague who I could call on the phone and discuss ideas and get his views. He also called me on occasions to discuss matters which he was dealing with. To me that was also a sign of his humility. He did not think of himself as so elevated that that he could not discuss matters with me who was very much his junior.
Stephen would from time to time visit the other judges in chambers just to check on how we were doing. I can recall him coming to my office on occasions and we would sit and chat. And as I reflect on those occasions I am now aware that during some of those times he would have been dealing with serious health issues. However, that was never the topic of our discussions. Stephen was never a member of the “whoa it’s me club”. He performed his work without excuses and never used his illness as a crutch.
Stephen was known for his wit and dry humour and conversations with him were always pleasant. He enjoyed his job and enjoyed the company of his colleagues. When we as judges at the Supreme Court commenced the practice of meeting monthly for lunch he was the one who coined the phrase the “lunch bunch”. He was in his element at those get-togethers telling his jokes and stories which kept us entertained but was also at the forefront of those discussions when we had issues to be resolved.
When I was appointed to Act in the Court of Appeal last year December Stephen also served on a number of panels in his capacity as Acting Chief Justice. We again got the opportunity to collaborate on cases. Where he respected my views and we were able to operate as colleagues. As I reflect on those days I am now aware that those days were the waning days of his life as his illness took its toll. He was working a full schedule as Acting Chief Justice as well as serving at the Court of Appeal while battling for his life. Yet I heard no complaints from him.
Added to this was the fact that he was in what he termed a holding position waiting to see what decision would be made relative to his future. This must have been a time of great stress as he dealt with all of these issues but again Stephen did not complain. In all of this I had no inkling as to the extent of the seriousness of his illness. I noted that he was more gaunt than before but attributed that to his workload.
I was very pleased when he was appointed as the substantive chief justice. I unfortunately was out of the Country when he was sworn in and thus missed that significant event. I sent him a note to congratulate him and to advise of my absence from his ceremony. I had occasion to discuss with him matters relative to his new assignment and looked forward to working with him in his new role. However, that was not to be.
When he was hospitalized I had no idea that his time with us was drawing to an end. His passing to me was a shock as I did not anticipate it. We have lost a friend, colleague and a leader. As I draw this tribute to a close I do so with my favourite poem which brings context to Stephen’s life and passing.
“Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.”
May his soul rest in Peace.