Antigone in Hamilton

The confrontation between New Zealand legal system and a family trying to bury a dead husband/father is eerily like Sophocles’ tragedy

It’s the story of wanting to mourn and bury a family member, and being prevented from doing so by law, perhaps not an unreasonable law. It’s the story of breaking the law to do what one thinks is right, and of not only being punished for it but being scolded by a man self-righteously posing as the voice of his people. It’s an old story. It’s one of the oldest stories. It’s a story that’s 2500 years old.

No, wait. It’s a new story. It just happened in Hamilton. (The New Zealand Hamilton, that is.) Stuff reports that a mother and her children “had flown over from Brisbane after the children’s father suffered a stroke and died on July 20. … She said the children had watched their father take his last breaths on a video call”. On arrival in New Zealand, they were put in quarantine. They applied for a compassionate exemption to attend the funeral, but their application was denied on the basis that “their ‘circumstances were not exceptional'”. So they escaped. The mother and three children were quickly captured, but a 17-year-old boy made it from Hamilton to Auckland, and “was able to spend between three and four hours with his father’s body before he negotiated with police and was detained”. And hence the grandstanding in Hamilton Youth Court: 

All appeared in front of Judge Noel Cocurullo, who said that New Zealanders were “sick and tired” of quarantine breaches. “The New Zealand public would be gutted at your behaviour,” he told the family. “You know the rules required of you coming into the country. It’s most important you comply with the rules.”

The mother, though, is not impressed with this. She “told Stuff ‘[she] was doing what any other mother would have done for their children'”.

I’m not sure about “any”, but as Sophocles knew, she certainly has a point. He tells of Creon, the king of Thebes, prohibiting anyone on pain of death from giving the funeral rites to Polyneikes, who tried to bring an invading foreign army to the city. Polyneikes’ sister Antigone defied Creon’s edict and tried to bury her brother.

The resulting conversions, although fortunately not the ultimate outcome (spoiler alert: it’s a tragedy, so everybody dies) foreshadow the recent events quite uncannily. Creon, like Justice Cocurullo appeals to the public authority of the laws, and Antigone, like the mother here, trumps it with that of natural, pre-political obligation:

Creon: Knew’st thou the edicts which forbade these things?

Antigone: I knew them. Could I fail? Full clear were they.

Creon: And thou did’st dare to disobey these laws?

Antigone: Yes, for it was not Zeus who gave them forth,⁠
Nor Justice, dwelling with the Gods below,
Who traced these laws for all the sons of men;
Nor did I deem thy edicts strong enough,
That thou, a mortal man, should’st over-pass
The unwritten laws of God that know not change.
They are not of to-day nor yesterday,
But live for ever, nor can man assign
When first they sprang to being. Not through fear
Of any man’s resolve was I prepared
Before the Gods to bear the penalty
Of sinning against these.

And Creon, like Justice Cocurullo, insists that the people are with him, not with the one who defies him. She, though, begs to differ:

Creon: Of all the race of Cadmos thou alone
Look’st thus upon the deed.

Antigone: ⁠They see it too
As I do, but their tongue is tied for thee.

Creon: Art not ashamed against their thoughts to think?⁠

Antig: There is nought base in honouring our own blood.

And, is it turns out, it is probably Antigone who is right about the state of public opinion. Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, challenges his father:

Haemon: ‘Tis my lot to watch
What each man says or does, or blames in thee,
For dread thy face to one of low estate,⁠
Who speaks what thou wilt not rejoice to hear.
But I can hear the things in darkness said,
Ηοw the whole city wails this maiden’s fate,

I won’t pretend to know where the state of public opinion in New Zealand lies on this story. And, wherever it lies, this should not matter for Justice Cocurullo’s verdict. We have the advantage of separation of powers over the Thebans, and this means that our judges must apply the law as it is ― and it is, then, for the Crown and its responsible advisors to exercise the prerogative of mercy in the appropriate cases. I won’t even pretend to say whether this is such a case.

But what I think I can say is that Justice Cocurullo, and other judges ― not just in New Zealand ― should not be so quick to saddle their moral high horse. Another, more recent work of literature comes to mind ― Patrick O’Brian’s Desolation Island (one of the novels in the Master and Commander series), of all things, where Dr Maturin, I believe, has this to say:

judges … not only are … subjected to the evil influence of authority but also to that of righteous indignation, which is even more deleterious. Those who judge and sentence criminals address them with an unbridled, vindictive righteousness that would be excessive in an archangel and that is indecent to the highest degree in one sinner speaking to another, and he defenceless. Righteous indignation every day, and publicly applauded!

And if there is one thing worse still than righteous indignation on own’s behalf, it is that on behalf of others ― who, as often as not, will not actually share in it. That is as true now as it was 2500 years ago.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Antigone in Hamilton”

  1. Leonid,

    I disagree with you a bit. As sympathetic as some of us might be with the plight of the family involved, they did not face the same prohibition as Antigone. Antigone faced a very specific prohibition imposed for, arguably, an unjust reason. The modern example features a family facing the same limitations as anyone in those circumstances. They just felt that they should be exempt. Why should law apply to them. I agree that judges run a risk when they presume to speak for a nation (or even a segment of a nation) or speak as the moral authority. Anyone who reads your blog will be well-versed with your views of Justice Abella taking on that mantle in Canada.

    In this case, however, the judge appears to be speaking on behalf of New Zealanders who abide by the law and don’t like when people insist that they should not be bound by the law. I don’t believe that the judge went outside the bounds of judicial comment in so doing.

    You state that the judge proceeded with his own ‘grand-standing’. We do not know what sort of grand-standing the family may have made in the court. We don’t even know what evidence was presented at the hearing. We do know that, after the proceeding concluded, the mother chose to ‘try’ the judge in the court of public opinion. I assume that ‘Stuff’ refers to the online New Zealand media, and not an American publication that would have been a less-than-ideal venue for such a discussion.

    If we are talking about a regulatory offences court or youth criminal court – as appears to be the case – those courts preside over offences against persons and against public order. In this case, it was the latter. And it is not inappropriate for a judge to comment that New Zealanders are upset by people disregarding public order laws and rules, particularly if there was evidence presented to that effect, and particularly if the defence presented on behalf of the offender suggested that an exception should have been made for him (and, in the absence of such an exception, the family would create their own exemption).

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