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Supreme Court judge first Canadian woman to receive honorary Yale degree

Justice Rosalie Abella arrives before the Speech from the Throne in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 3, 2010.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella has become the first Canadian woman awarded an honorary degree by Yale University in its 315-year history.

In the citation, Yale president Peter Salovey singled out the 69-year-old judge for defending the vulnerable.

"You defend human-rights and justice in your home nation of Canada and around the globe. As one of the world's finest living judges, you approach your work with zest, empathy, and superb intelligence."

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As a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946, she knows "first-hand the terrors of oppression and inhumanity," Mr. Salovey said in front of her husband, the historian Irving Abella, their two adult children and their wives, and two grandchildren. "Your pioneering judgments have extended the protection of law to all. You are a champion of the vulnerable and an inspiration to everyone."

Justice Abella is the Supreme Court's second-longest-serving judge, with 12 years' experience on the top court; she became a judge at 29. She has participated in several constitutional seminars at Yale. In a 2004 speech at the law school, she said judges play an important role in ensuring that governments do not trample on human rights.

"Enforcing rights may court controversy, but better to court controversy than to court irrelevance," she said.

In a 2013 panel discussion at Yale, she said the U.S. Supreme Court is "struggling with constitutional interpretation," and is seldom cited by other constitutional courts around the world. Of Canada's Supreme Court, she said, "dignity is the lodestar of our constitution."

Canadian men who have been given honorary degrees at Yale include former prime ministers Lester Pearson and Mackenzie King, and former governors-general Vincent Massey and Lord Tweedsmuir, also known as John Buchan, a novelist.

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