Skip to main content

Murray Gleeson – The Smiler




Publication Date




Page Extent


AUD $59.95 gst included

Cover photo: Andrew Quilty

Courtroom tactician, devastating in reply, intimidating and intense. Murray Gleeson has been described as many things, but his grim work persona gave him the label that stuck – The Smiler.

Born in a small country town in NSW, Gleeson became the nation’s top barrister and its leading judge. In a legal career spanning over 50 years, he had a ringside seat for political, legal and social events that shaped Australia – the final separation from Mother England, legalised abortion, the dismissal of the Whitlam government, the Tasmanian Dams Case, the Fine Cotton substitution, the scandalous attack on Justice Michael Kirby, the war on terrorism, prisoners’ right to vote and the detention of refugees.

The Smiler draws on more than 100 interviews with the man himself and his family, friends and judicial colleagues, including those who sat with him on the High Court. It is an unprecedented insight into a legend of the Australian legal system.

In the media…

  • The life of ‘Smiler’ Murray Gleeson, Michael Sexton, SMH_ 4 July 2014 Read article…
  • The essence of good judgment, Janet Albrechtsen, The Australian_18 June 2014 Read article…
  • Smiles and stares, Richard Ackland, The Saturday Paper_14 June 2014 Read article…
  • Inside the Heffernan disaster, The Australian_6 June 2014 Read extract…
  • Hughes appointment set an alarming precedent, Chris Merritt, The Australian_30 May 2014 Read article…
  • The day Gaudron put Chief Justice in his place, The Australian_30 May 2014 Read extract…
  • Book on Murray Gleeson sheds light on Fine Cotton comedy, Max Presnell, SMH_29 May 2014 Read article…
  • Gleeson subjected to formal interview, Chris Merritt, The Australian_23 May 2014 Read article…
  • Gleeson appointment a ‘no brainer’, The Australian_23 May 2014 Read extract…

From the Launch…

“Pelly recites many tales which are familiar to the legal profession. However, there is much in this book that is new. He has done Australian legal history a great service by interviewing family, friends and colleagues whose reminiscences may not otherwise have been recorded.” Read Launch Speech…

1.   Early Life
2.   Leaving Home
3.   The Rise of Leo… and Murray
4.   The University Years
5.   Learning the Law
6.   On the Job
7.   A Partner for Life
8.   Stress Takes Its Toll
9.   No Looking Back
10. Faith and Fidelity
11.  Ritual and Routine
12.  From the Bottom of the Harbour
13.  Breaking Away
14.  A Party Man?
15.  In the Limelight
16.  In the Backroom
17.  Get Gleeson
18.  The Sexiest Man I Ever Met
19.  An Extinct Argument
20. Blink and Miss
21.  Follow the Leader
22.  The Smiler
23.  To the Bench
24.  Street’s Red Hot Potato
25.  Getting Down to Business
26.  Sitting in Judgment
27.  No Limit to Evil
28.  Speaking his Mind
29.  On High
30.  A Helping Hand
31.  The Home Front
32.  Settling In
33.  High and Mighty
34.  The PR Guy
35.  The Vibe
36.  A Liberal in Disguise?
37.  Murderers and Terrorists
38.  Who’s Responsible?
39.  A Court Scandalised
40.  Still in the Game


Murray Gleeson: The Smiler provides us with a few glimpses, which is perhaps as many as we are likely to get. Michael Pelly gives a good account of Gleeson’s childhood and schooling; his early years as a practitioner; his period as a leading barrister and finally, his judicial career.
        … Michael Pelly’s biography was undertaken with the approval of his subject, which is fortunate since without it we may not have had this book at all. Although Gleeson did give extensive interviews, his greatest assistance was in allowing access to his family who provide most of the interesting insights.
        … Murray Gleeson: The Smiler is, to be sure, a most enjoyable biography, well-researched and engagingly written. To wish that Gleeson had opened up more to his biographer is to praise what Michael Pelly has managed to coax from his enigmatic subject and from those who know him.” Read review…

Grant Bailey, University of Western Sydney Law Review, August 2016

“Writing with the skill and economy of a professional journalist, Michael Pelly has provided an excellent biography of Murray Gleeson, regarded by many in the law as the best advocate of his time. Michael Pelly has been a journalist for over 30 years concentrating on legal reporting. He has held advisory positions to State and Federal Attorneys General. “The Smiler” is his first book which has made an important contribution to legal history in Australia.
        The book covers the judge’s life up to the present time from his birth in 1938 in the New South Wales country town of Wingham, schooling at St Joseph’s Wingham and Hunter’s Hill, Sydney University, marriage, family and an outstanding career at the bar and on the bench.
        By allowing the author to speak with family, friends and former colleagues, the book brings to life the real person behind Murray Gleeson’s stern persona and allows the reader to gain an understanding of his personality and professional achievements. Murray Gleeson’s renowned competitive spirit is evident from a nearly age, honed by a strong involvement in debating both at school and University and, no doubt, in court. The biography discloses a very private person; with mentions of his stern and emotionless demeanour.
        Over the years His Honour was involved in a number of high profile cases including Kate Fitzpatrick’s defamation action, the Fine Cotton affair and the tax fraud case against the Hon. Ian Sinclair MP. More important was his involvement in the Work Choices case and many tax cases including what became known as Curran Schemes.
        His Honour is quite clear in his view that the Court should be guided by the law as legislated by Parliament and should not seek to modernise its interpretation.
        The challenges faced by the Chief Justice are highlighted by the unfortunate and unfair attack on the Hon Michael Kirby by the Hon Bill Heffernan MP, under Parliamentary Privilege.
        The book is an excellent coverage of the person, his personality and the operation of the two Superior Courts where Murray Gleeson was Chief Justice for twenty years.”

Malcolm Irving, December 2015

“… Pelly surveys over half a century of Australian legal history through the lens of his subject, and there is much here to interest anyone curious about our system’s inner workings.
         Refreshingly, Gleeson is also shown in some depth as a husband and father, albeit one who, when adjudicating a dispute between his young children, announced: “Well, provocation’s an adequate defence” (p.64).
         The book takes Gleeson’s drive to succeed as something of a theme and duly ends by quoting the subject saying, simply, “I like to win” (p.267).” 

Sarah Burnside, Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2015

“Biographies of judges are almost as often mired in languor as their autobiographical cousins. But there are exceptions. Michael Pelly provides the proof. He has never been a judge, though he has a postgraduate degree in law. Rather, he is an experienced journalist. And he can write – very well. Nevertheless, he has taken on a hazardous task. He has attempted the biography of a man who was not only a judge but of whom a judicial colleague (Justice Roderick Meagher, of the New South Wales Court of Appeal) has said, not altogether in jest, that ‘he never utters an unnecessary word. He has written nothing outside his professional work. He takes no interest in either music or art. He does, however, like flowers. He stares at them to make them wilt.’
         Drama comes frequently to courtrooms. It is, generally speaking, an uncommon inhabitant of the chambers in which the bulk of judicial work is undertaken. When it does occur, however, it is the chief justice to whom all look for remedial action. In Gleeson’s time, a retired bisexual judge committed suicide after being accused (probably without foundation) of paedophilia; and another was accused (with undoubted falsity) of using a government car to assist in homosexual meetings. Pelly treats each instance with candour and tact.
         This is a biography about a complex and talented man who in his time significantly influenced the direction of his country. It deserves a wide and general readership.” Read review…

David Harper QC, Australian Book Review, Jan-Feb 2015

“Roddy Meagher, a brother judge, was overheard to say that Murray takes no interest in music or art. He does, however, like flowers; he glares at them until they wilt.
          This is an engaging biography. … the dramas and behind-the-scenes details I lapped up.” Read review…

Clive Hodges, Good Reading, October 2014

“It was with great foresight that the grandfather of 4-year-old Murray Gleeson entreated the boy to be like Bill Dovey QC rather than “be the Pope”. Apart from a powerful suggestion, that may have been lost on one so young, what were the forces that shaped Murray Gleeson to become Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia? Pelly is cursory in his exploration of Gleeson’s early years and the book really focuses on his life at university and his ascension through the “galaxy of talent” to be the Chief Justice of the High Court. Pelly gives some insight into the young Murray Gleeson who would share time with his father visiting livestock sales, listening to the horse races, and boxing fights on the radio. Gleeson was bookish from an early age with his mother describing him as “a very serious boy”. This informs the tone of this biography and explains a character that sidelined his sense of humour in favour of strict measure, rigor, hard work, and austerity. A person who is said to have made a bereavement counselor look happy. It will come as no surprise to readers that Murray Gleeson had a practice in tax law. Pelly’s book contains much analysis of the forces that changed the law and the preeminent role that Murray Gleeson played in those changes. It is a biography about a lawyer written for lawyers.”

Queensland Law Reporter – 26 September 2014 – (2014] 37 QLR

“The book’s style is informative, insightful and entertaining. It is difficult to do it justice in a brief review such as this. A great deal of detail is provided in relation to key events, so that readers come away from the book with a sense that they have come to know something substantial of the personality, the humour and the intellect of its subject. In achieving this, Pelly has achieved an excellent legal biography.”

Douglas J James, InPrint, Law Institute Journal Victoria, September 2014

“Despite appearances, this is not a book for lawyers about a lawyer. That virtue stems from Pelly’s ability to distil accurately the facts and principles of complex litigation with brevity so that they serve, not dominate, his account. It is also the characters at play that frequently provide the colour: a cast of lawyers, politicians, rogues and celebrities, such as actress Kate Fitzpatrick, who memorably described Gleeson as “the sexiest man I ever met”. Gleeson thought her taste “discerning”.
         The feature that recurs throughout the book is Gleeson’s brilliance. The biography is the catalogue of a penetrating intellect, and Pelly’s engaging and accessible account delivers an insight into the man.”

Benjamin Dighton, The Australian, 6 September 2014

“… an impressive and welcome addition to the canon of Australian judicial biography.”

Andrew Lynch, The Australasian Study of Parliament Group, September 2014

“Pelly has organised The Smiler in a very readable way, moving through the account of Gleeson’s life and career prior to taking judicial office in a simple chronological fashion. The period after Gleeson was appointed Chief Justice of NSW, and particularly Chief Justice of Australia, is handled in a more thematic fashion. There are individual chapters dedicated to the High Court’s work in constitutional law, criminal law, negligence and immigration matters, as well as to Gleeson’s extra-curial speeches. … What becomes clear in the discussion of the cases in which Gleeson sat, is that his judgments – always written in an economical, almost sparse, style – have remained influential, even if they did not command support from a majority in the case itself.
          … [a] wonderfully researched and presented book.
          … Pelly has produced an informative and very enjoyable account of the life and career of an Australian legal giant.”

Greg Weeks, Australian Journal of Administrative Law, August 2014

“Murray Gleeson is not the sexiest man I ever met. However, he is the dominant counsel and judge of our age, and Michael Pelly’s account should be read for this alone.

Pelly starts at the beginning. On page one, Gleeson’s maternal grandfather is asking the three-year-old what he wants to be. “I’m going to be the Pope.” Better off being Bill Dovey, the Free Presbyterian retorts. And so we have one topic and one theme which have run on through Gleeson’s life.” 

David Ash, Francis Forbes Society, Australian Legal History, May 2014

“The work provides full biographical details of Murray Gleeson’s life although, appropriately, it concentrates on his career as a barrister and his role as the Chief Justice of the High Court. The author has drawn on various interviews with over 100 of Mr Gleeson’s family, friends and colleagues (including former High Court judges) from which he relays numerous interesting anecdotes. Although it is a work which is written from a journalist’s point of view and capable of being read and appreciated by non-lawyers, it holds much interest for those legally trained. In particular, it provides substantial insights into the workings of the High Court during Gleeson’s stewardship and the interpersonal relationships of the members of the Court over that time.

The work is interesting for the discussion of the manner in which Mr Gleeson was “interviewed” for the position as Chief Justice of the High Court and whether or not Mr Gleeson was aware at the time that he was being so interviewed. It also identifies the practice of the former Commonwealth Attorney-General, Mr Daryl Williams to interview prospective appointees to the High Court and the types of questions which were asked on that occasion. This aspect has attracted substantial media interest in the past week or so.”

Queensland Law Reporter – 30 May 2014 – [2014] 20 QLR

You may also like…