Catholic Faith infuses a judge’s vocation

By Lorraine Turchansky
Chief Communications Officer

As a judge at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, Debra Yungwirth makes decisions that have serious impacts on the lives of individuals and their families. Many of the matters she hears are heart-breaking, and at times her task has seemed overwhelming. But Justice Yungwirth has an extra advocate with her on the bench – a deep and abiding Catholic faith.

“I sometimes wonder what makes me qualified to impose what I think is best on another person,” she told delegates to the Edmonton Diocesan Catholic Women’s League convention on the weekend. “This is a power that very few people have. I don’t want to make a mistake, but I know that I will sometimes. I have to take comfort in knowing that the Court of Appeal is there to reverse my decisions if necessary . . . This is where my faith comes in. I believe that God put me in this job and that He will give me what I need to do it.”

Justice Yungwirth grew up as the oldest of eight children in a family with parents and grandparents who were role models in living their faith. She has been a longtime member of Good Shepherd Parish in Edmonton, and despite a heavy workload, continues to play piano for the music ministry every Sunday. But she candidly admits that she didn’t truly understand the significance of that faith until adulthood.

“Until I was about 30, I naively believed that I had control over everything in my life,” she said. “It took a personal tragedy and the fallout from that to jolt me into the beginning of my journey toward the acceptance that God is in charge of my life, that He loves me, that He knows what’s best for me, and that I have to trust that.”

That trust has served her well. After 31 years of practising family law, she was appointed in March 2014 to the Queen’s Bench – a rare appointment for a family lawyer. She was just four months into the job when she was called to hear an application by a mother for a 90-day injunction to prevent Alberta Health Services from removing mechanical ventilation support for her two-month old child. The baby had been born with a lethal condition that had no cure, that caused her pain and required 24-hour nursing care.

Medical experts had argued that it was in the child’s best interests to discontinue the life support and provide palliative care and comfort measures until she died. The mother – a troubled indigenous woman who had already lost one baby to stillbirth and another to sudden infant death syndrome – did not want this baby to die.

“Of all the judges that this matter could have come before, it was me that got assigned,” Justice Yungwirth recalled. “I had an understanding about mom’s distress that most judges would not have had. Why? Because I had also experienced infant loss in my first pregnancy, when I had stillborn twin boys after carrying them for 38 weeks.

“I understood something about what that mother was going through, and I understood that she was not capable of making the decision for her baby. I had to make it for her. I know that God put me in this job, and put that mother in my path on that day because she needed my help.

“That experience highlighted for me how everything I do in my position as a judge is part of God’s plan for me and for the people who appear before me. I am where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

It’s one example of many. But whatever the case, Justice Yungwirth prays for guidance from God. She asks for wisdom, strength, creativity in finding solutions, and for the ability to see good in people, even when that’s difficult.

“When I’m being told one story by the victim of sexual assault and a different story by the accused, and I’m required to make an assessment of credibility, I trust that I will receive the wisdom and tools that I need to make that assessment.

“When I am sentencing someone and I must listen to heart-breaking victim impact statements from family members affected by the crime, and I must stay strong so that I don’t break down, I trust that I will get the strength I need.

“When an elderly man is crying in front of me because he does not want me to appoint a guardian and trustee for him but I know that it is the right thing to do, I trust that I will get what I need to be compassionate and kind while trying to help him understand why the order is required.”

There are other Christian judges at the court, some more open about their faith than others.

“They, in my view, stand out from the others,” she said. “They are excellent role models to me, and I know that like everything else they have been placed in my path, and me in theirs, to provide support as we journey together in this very difficult job.”

It’s not easy for anyone to speak openly about faith in the workplace, and some might even suggest that Catholic faith could bring bias to a judge’s decisions, but Justice Yungwirth says it’s never been an issue. 

“Part of our independence as judges allows us to be true to ourselves and to recognize that if it would ever interfere with my impartiality or ability to hear a matter, then I would recuse myself,” she said in an interview. “But that hasn’t happened.”

“You have to be true to who you are. I certainly don’t hide the fact that I’m a Christian. In fact, I think it’s a benefit, not a detriment, to the people who come before me, because I can offer compassion for their circumstances.”