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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mitchell, Ernest Meyer (1875–1943)

by Anthony Fisher

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Ernest Meyer Mitchell (1875-1943), by unknown photographer

Ernest Meyer Mitchell (1875-1943), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H84.303/56

Ernest Meyer Mitchell (1875-1943), barrister and politician, was born on 12 February 1875 at Wynyard Square, Sydney, eldest child of Philip Mitchell, jeweller from Germany, and his Sydney-born wife Rosalie, née Brodziak. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School where he was school captain and winner of the Knox prize twice. At the University of Sydney he won several prizes, gained his rowing blue and was treasurer of Hermes before graduating B.A. with first-class honours in classics in 1896 and LL.B. in 1900 with the University medal. He was admitted to the Bar on 26 October and elected president of the Sydney University Law Society in 1905.

In 1907 Mitchell was appointed Challis lecturer in common law subjects at the university. An unorthodox lecturer, he walked around the room as he spoke. Meanwhile he practised at the Bar in a wide variety of cases.

On 14 April 1915 Mitchell married Mabel Daisy Black, a masseuse, at the Unitarian Church, Liverpool Street. In November next year he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and served in France with the 4th Battalion from October 1917. Commissioned in June 1918 he was transferred to the 1st Machine Gun Battalion. After the Armistice he was attached to the A.I.F. education scheme under Bishop Long. Returning to Sydney in July 1919 he retained a military connexion with the Australian Army Legal Division until transferred to the reserve of officers in 1926, having been promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1924. He briefly continued university lecturing and was a member of the senate in 1925-34 and of the joint committee for tutorial classes.

Resuming practice at the Bar, Mitchell took silk in 1925 and appeared in important constitutional cases in the High Court of Australia; his special contribution was to the interpretation of section 92 of the Australian Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom of trade and commerce. In 1930-31, with (Sir) David Maughan, he appeared gratis for (Sir) Arthur Trethowan and others opposing the abolition of the New South Wales Legislative Council. He also appeared for the Commonwealth in the three garnishee cases in 1932 when Premier J. T. Lang challenged the validity of the Financial Agreements Enforcement Act. He also acted for the aviator Goya Henry in his two appeals to the High Court in the 1930s. He was frequently consulted by State and Commonwealth governments, trade unions and employer associations.

In December 1933 Mitchell was elected to the reconstituted Legislative Council for three years and in 1936 for twelve years. He was an influential adviser of both sides of the House on legal issues, carefully considering every bill as a critic of particular provisions rather than as an initiator of legislation. Although conservative himself and a member of the United Australia Party, he often proclaimed that he was not opposed to Labor.

Mitchell's parliamentary activity declined during World War II. A diabetic, he died suddenly of atherosclerotic heart disease on 21 April 1943 at his Phillip Street chambers and was buried in the Anglican section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife survived him; the marriage was without issue. Essentially a private and humble man, Mitchell declined offers of judicial positions. He was a learned and incisive advocate, well known for his lack of pretension, courtesy and willingness to help others.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (ed), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1943, p 2611
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 44, p 394, 46, p 155
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Apr 1943
  • Incorporated Law Institute (New South Wales), Report 1933 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Anthony Fisher, 'Mitchell, Ernest Meyer (1875–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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