'You're asking me to quash his conviction?'
'Even though he pleaded guilty?'
'The Law is an ass, Bernard.'
Air Commodore Smith was a 'one star' general equivalent.
He'd graduated from the RAAF Academy the year I was born.
He was an Engineer. A Fighter Pilot.
He was flying Mirage fighters at twice the speed of sound at 40,000 feet over Malaysia during the Vietnam War when I was still in nappies.
He was a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
He was the Air Officer Commanding Western Australia.
He had a wife and grown up children.
He was my boss.
I was in my mid-twenties. Three years out of Law School. Four ranks and a thousand years junior to him in work and military and life experience.
'The Defence Force Discipline Act allows you to seek a higher legal opinion if you're not comfortable with mine, Sir,' I explained to him.
'Not necessary,' he said as he signed his acceptance of my review and recommendation to quash the conviction of the cannabis smoking airman on the basis of an error of law. 'You've explained your reasons both in your written report and verbally to me today and I accept the stupidity of the Law, not you. I'm going to bring this legal loophole to the attention of the other Base Commanders at our conference at Headquarters next week. They need to know about it.'
A month later, a file 'Command Legal Matters' was marked out to me by Wing Commander Oliver, the Air Commodore's Administrative Staff Officer. I opened it and found a copy of a letter that was marked to me 'For Information'.
It was a letter from the Air Officer Commanding Training Command, a two star general equivalent and my boss's boss. It was written to all the Air Force Base Commanders in Training Command - including my boss. It referred to the recent Commanders Conference and the jurisdiction issue I had cited to recommend quashing the conviction. It was admonishing my boss for quashing the conviction based upon my legal advice.
One line stands out in my memory: 'There is no place for High Court decisions in the administration of summary hearings under the Defence Force Discipline Act on Bases. Command Legal have confirmed this. Commanders should therefore seek higher headquarters legal advice in future before quashing convictions based on jurisdictional grounds. '
The Air Commodore never mentioned the letter nor his boss's criticisms of him at his commanders conference to me, let alone my legal superiors' contradictions. I don't even think that he intended the letter to come to me - otherwise he would have spoken to me about it rather than have me find out via a marked out file. He must not have thought it important.
Air Commodore Smith backed me. He backed me over the commanding officer whose guilty verdict he quashed. He backed me in front of his boss. He backed me before his peers. He backed me when he could have gone to my legal superiors for a second opinion. He backed me even though he disagreed with the legal outcome as a matter of common sense. He backed me when my own legal superiors did not. He backed me with the same business-as-usual manner as he would return my salutes if we passed each other or crack his lawyer jokes.
Air Commodore Smith didn't need to hear a Supreme Court Judge affirm my legal reasoning at a Legal Officers conference six months later. He continued to challenge, question, and ultimately back my advice to him for the remainder of my posting as his legal adviser.
His faith in me was a huge burden. It increased my self-doubt because I had to continue to live up to his total reliance on me and I thought I could not. It made me feel more exposed, rather than protected. It made me more careful and diligent in the legal advice that I gave to him. It made me accept other decisions that he made as the Base Commander that I did not necessarily understand or agree with because I trusted him based upon the way that I had seen him go about his decision making. It connected me to him. It made me a better legal officer, lawyer and person. His trust in my judgement and legal ability and officer qualities was hard to live up to.
Which was another gift that Air Commodore Smith gave me.
He just assumed I was up to it.